Slouching Toward Sacramento 

Is Oakland poised to embrace the populist politics of the initiative?

Over the years, Californian politics have become increasingly dominated by referendums and initiatives, imprecise populist mechanisms in which impulses thwarted by the legislature are later indulged by the citizenry in an end-run around Sacramento. And if the 2002 elections are any indication, a similar shift may now be under way in Oakland. City residents have an opportunity to take matters into their own hands with Measure EE, which would prevent landlords from issuing thirty-day eviction notices without giving one of eleven reasons, including nonpayment of rent, criminal activity, and the destruction of property.

The first signs of this transformation came last March, when 78 percent of Oakland voters embraced the so-called Living Wage Ordinance, a measure that requires businesses connected to Oakland's port or airport to pay a prescribed minimum level of compensation to a wide range of employees. After backers of the concept failed to get an ordinance of their liking through the city's Port Commission, they went directly to the people and scored a surprisingly strong victory in this year's primary election.

The push for tenant protections has long simmered in Oakland, even though Berkeley and San Francisco passed such ordinances several decades ago. Supporters of rental reform first went directly to the public a few years ago. But after the current incarnation of the proposed ordinance narrowly missed qualifying for the ballot in 2000, subsequent attempts to get the council to ban no-cause evictions were shot down by a council majority, despite noisy meetings where hundreds of tenants stayed late into the night testifying about their own housing woes.

So this year, Measure EE's proponents collected 36,000 signatures -- well over what was needed -- and landlords, who had previously been fairly quiet on the issue, have come out swinging. The result has been a high-profile and often fractious campaign season, filled with angry protests and allegations of lies and dirty tricks. And as is often the case with statewide ballot measures, there is wide disagreement about whether this so-called "Just Cause" initiative is an essential progressive reform or an ill-conceived measure that will drag Oakland's housing stock down to Berkeley's level.

The thirty-day no-cause eviction notice, currently legal in Oakland, can be a handy tool for landlords who need to get rid of a problem tenant in a hurry. But Measure EE's supporters say that thirty-day notices have also been used to boot out well-behaved long-term tenants -- including seniors and low-income families with children -- so that landlords could renovate apartments and supersize the rent, especially during the dot-com boom. The overheated rental market of the past few years has already led to a few reforms: In 2000, a new rule prohibited landlords from raising the rent for 24 months after using a thirty-day notice. And a city regulation that went into effect this July also requires landlords to report their rental rates to the city after evicting a tenant, and allows those evicted to take legal action and collect fines if the landlord ends up charging subsequent tenants more. But EE's supporters say these regulations are worthless as tenant protections -- the residents are still displaced, the rules aren't enforced enough to serve as an effective deterrent, and so far nobody has collected any fine money. Holly Finke, campaign co-coordinator for Yes on Measure EE, says the Just Cause initiative's goals are fair and simple: "What we're trying to do is even the playing field a little."

Wayne Rowland, vice president of the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, which opposes Measure EE, strongly disagrees. "It's eleven pages' worth of 'simple,'" he says. Rowland claims the proposed law is filled with "poison pills," loopholes that would prevent landlords from evicting dangerous or destructive tenants, negotiating with tenants out of court, and allow renters to sublet their apartments without the property owner's approval. Literature put out by Measure EE's opponents has raised the specter of junkies and sex offenders invading properties and becoming impossible to evict. "They are definitely playing on people's fear of crime and trying to link it to the issue of tenant rights," contends Finke. But Rowland says that if Measure EE passes, the need to prove just cause will require expensive jury trials, and in drug-dealing cases reluctant neighbors would have to serve as witnesses, possibly endangering their lives. Criminal activity and retaliation against witnesses are very real Oakland problems, he says. "It's not proper to call things that are really happening out there 'scare tactics.' This is reality."

The main complaint landlords have about Measure EE is that it essentially shifts the burden of proof for the need for eviction to the landlord. Critics say this unfairly penalizes all landlords with burdensome overregulation and the need to make court appearances, when the type of egregiously unfair evictions a Just Cause ordinance is meant to prevent may be very rare. But Measure EE's supporters say that the vast majority of landlords have nothing to fear from Just Cause, and that the much-reviled subletting clause does nothing more than let renters replace an outgoing roommate in a timely fashion. "Anyone who follows good business practices and has a minimum level of respect for the community will have no problem," says Finke. "This is to target bad practices; it's not a free-for-all on landlords." The boom will come again, she adds, and we should be ready for it.

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