One feature of the new rent control law is that it protects the right of tenants to organize together. The law provides that:
- Tenants have the right to organize. It is illegal for landlords to retaliate;
- Landlords must recognize and deal with an organization designated by the tenant as the representative of the tenant;
- Tenants organizations have standing before the Rent Board.
These provisions apply to building-based tenants organizations, landlord-based tenants organizations (that may include tenants from multiple buildings owned by a single landlord), or to long-standing tenants organizations like Tenants Together.
Why is this so important? Even though the new law protects tenants and gives them new rights, landlords typically still have much more power than individual tenants. Landlords usually have an edge in knowledge, legal support, and resources to engage in prolonged legal disputes. It is easier for a landlord to win in court even when the facts point the other way. Often the only way to successfully take on a bad landlord is by organizing together, pooling resources for legal help, and bringing public and political pressure on landlords to settle. Rights are fine, but you have to organize and take action to make them real.
Here are four observations for the City as it contemplates how to respond in the wake of Oakland's Ghost Ship fire.
1. When there is not a sufficient supply of cheap housing or when wages are not sufficient to support what housing is available, it is predictable that many will become homeless and others will look for inexpensive ways to live -- often in buildings not really suitable or safe for housing. The campaigns we have had in Richmond to develop more affordable housing and protect the affordability of the housing we have through rent control are critical first steps -- but we need much more.
2. Young people need and will find venues to engage in social and artistic activities. Ghost Ship provided something more than just cheap places for living -- a supportive community culture. We must develop more inexpensive venues for holding events and exhibitions.
3. We need better, more effective, and fairer enforcement of local safety requirements. A flurry of "cover-your-ass" activities after disasters like Ghost Ship are not a substitute for a regular enforcement program that helps people meet safety requirements. Simply closing a place and making people homeless transfers a problem without solving it. And we must develop ways to help people stay in their places or continue their work while improvements are made.
A knee-jerk reaction to greatly increase the number of inspectors is not the answer. First, it is expensive and will take funds away from other needed city services. Second, when tenants fear retaliation from a landlord or fear that they will lose their housing if an inspector finds code violations, their refusal to open doors, cooperate, or report violations makes inspection programs ineffective.
4. The key to tenant safety is most of all tenant involvement: tenants knowing and demanding removal of dangerous living conditions; tenants reporting landlords who maintain unsafe housing conditions. One of the important features of the recently adopted rent control ballot measure helps make this possible. The new law prohibits landlords from evicting or otherwise penalizing any tenant who reports safety problems or demands that landlords correct dangerous conditions. It also protects tenants who are forced to leave because a landlord has not complied with building codes. Whether or not the landlord is operating legally, the landlord is still subject to providing relocation assistance in these cases.