Mint Press News
by Katie Rucke

Even Though City Code Enforcers Have the Ability to Fine Landlords and Other Property Owners for Failing to Address Issues, Tenants Say No Fines Have Been Issued.

Wrecked by the economic collapse in 2007, the city of Oakland, Calif., saw more than 10,000 foreclosures by 2012. To pour salt on the wound, the collapse of the housing market in the city allowed many wealthy individuals and corporate entities to purchase a lot of real estate in the city, forcing many lower-income and minority residents to move to another city or to a lesser-affluent neighborhood in the city.

According to a report from the Urban Strategies Council, the two largest Oakland foreclosure investors, Community Fund LLC and REO Homes LLC, acquired about 500 properties between 2007 and 2012. Unfortunately for those who chose to stay in Oakland and find a cheaper place to live, many found themselves living in unsanitary conditions run by landlords who ignored complaints and refused to clean up their apartment buildings.

Tiffany Tate has lived in a West Oakland apartment complex for the past four years. The 28-year-old chef says her landlord has refused to do anything about the bedbugs, roaches, mold and leaky pipes she’s had in her apartment the whole time she has lived there.

“It is horrible,” she said of her $685-a-month apartment. “I got really, really sick because of the mold and bacteria. … I have bedbugs. I got bitten by roaches.”

Though Tate’s living situation sounds like a nightmare, many resident and tenant rights groups say that it’s a daily reality for many people in Oakland and other cities around the U.S. hit hard by economic woes.

Gentrification is by no means unique to Oakland. Lower-income residents in Seattle for example, have reported problems such as extensive mold, leaks, broken or missing appliances and signs of bedbugs. Because of the mold, several tenants reported they were chronically sick, and some of their belongings were destroyed.

Kanisha Frison, 37, moved into a studio apartment in the Booker Emery building with her husband and four children about seven months ago. She said when they moved into their $635-a-month apartment, there were roaches and bedbugs, and pretty soon the ceiling in her bathroom began to leak and a hole opened up.

Frison asked her landlord Ramdas Darke to fix the problems, and he allegedly sprayed for bugs and patched the hole in the bathroom, but Frison says the bugs eventually came back and the leak is still an issue. Frison, unemployed, says she can’t afford to live anywhere else in Oakland.

“With the income I got, no, I can’t” move out, she said. “Living on one income with kids, you can’t find too much else around here. If I could, I would, for sure. I don’t want to live in this dump, and that’s what this is, a dump.”

As the city works to improve housing conditions, many residents say that affordable housing is being replaced with higher-end, renovated buildings, pushing the city’s lower-income residents out.

Move or shut your mouth

Rio Scharf, an organizer with the East Bay Solidarity Network, told MintPress that rental prices are skyrocketing in the area, and some tenants are being told by landlords to get used to the poor living conditions or move out. But like in Frison’s case, moving out is not an option for many residents. Scharf says their fight for better quality living standards has become a double-edged sword.

“These tenants are walking a tightrope,” said Scharf, explaining that many of those tenants who have withheld some of their rent payments to pay for the repairs they’ve had to make are being given three-day eviction notices in return.

According to Scharf, since they are not supported by the city or other organizations, landlords sometimes agree to update properties, but only to bring in higher-income tenants.

Even though city code enforcers have the ability to fine landlords and other property owners for failing to address issues, tenants say no fines have been issued.

Kim Brown, a tenant fighting for better living conditions, told MintPress that she was fighting for better living conditions because if you pay rent, you should be treated with respect.

“We don’t have a lot of money,” said Brown, speaking on behalf of many of the tenants. “If we had the choice to go somewhere else we probably would,” which is why she says tenants should not be greeted with an eviction notice on their door if they ask for a repair.

Reginald Blake and Leon Smith agreed, adding that because of the conditions of their apartments, neither can have their grandkids come over anymore.

Smith said although he sprays for bugs every night, he has fountains of roaches coming into his apartment at 3 or 4 a.m. every morning.

“I’ve never seen so many roaches,” Smith said, “and I’m from New York.”

Smith said that he sprayed his house with toxic chemicals before, but the bugs came back after a month. Because of the bugs, he had to replace his refrigerator three times.

“It’s just a hassle,” he adds, explaining that he ended up in this apartment building due to his economic situation.

To make matters worse, Smith says he suffers from medical conditions such as glaucoma and migraine headaches that make him particularly sensitive to mold. Though Smith tries to keep his apartment as clean as possible and has asked his landlord for help, he says nothing has been done, and he has to wear a mask in his home.

According to a report in the Oakland Tribune, part of the reason that landlords have failed to take care of the bugs is because treating a 50-unit building can cost at least $50,000, and require exterminators to apply multiple treatments, which involves spraying pesticides into the gaps in the walls.

“I think the city of Oakland has a lot of time and seemingly lots of money to put in some communities and not in others,” said Zora Raskin, an organizer with the East Bay Solidarity Network, a tenant rights group. “As Oakland gentrifies, they put money into certain people, but not people of a certain class or race who have been here.”

Preeti Vissa, community reinvestment director for the Greenlining Institute, agreed and said “Communities of color were hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, and now we see another cycle of disempowerment in those same neighborhoods.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Karen Boyd, spokeswoman for the city of Oakland, said on Monday that a hearing officer with the city’s Rent Adjustment Board began to issue preliminary rent credits to Tate and other tenants, reasoning that tenants should be compensated for pervasive bedbugs and other issues.

With these rent credits, the tenants could see their rent cut in half. However, the board’s final decision regarding the rent credits won’t be issued until next month.

“It’s alarming to see entire neighborhoods transferring wealth from hundreds of people to the hands of two companies. And it’s hugely damaging to communities if homes bought by investors aren’t held to any standards for rehabilitation and upkeep, as well as affordability in both ownership and rental,” Vissa said.