The city of Oakland has filed a tenant protection lawsuit against two real estate companies and their owners alleging that they have spent the last three years renting out dilapidated properties to low-income immigrants, charging as much as $1,000 a month for a single room and a shared bathroom. The companies belong to married owners Baljit Mann and Surinder Mann, who run the Friendly Cab company in the area and own more than 150 properties in Oakland. The lawsuit hinges on a complaint that the Manns may have illegally concerted a commercial storage warehouse into 18 residential units and rented out an attached storage shed as living space as well. The situation came to light when one of the tenants complained that the warehouse had no hot running water, no heat, no smoke detectors, no ventilation around gas stoves, dangerous gas lines, mold, no garbage service, and infestations of cockroaches, rats, and mice.
“All of those units were unsafe and unfit for human habitation,” a city attorney wrote in a statement on the matter. The lawsuit also says in some cases two families were sharing as little as 500 square feet. The warehouse was “red-tagged” in early 2018 because the defendants refused to make repairs.
Oakland’s Housing Affordability Crisis
Like much of the rest of California, Oakland is experiencing a severe shortage of affordable housing. This is likely a significant contributing factor to the Manns’ tenants’ willingness to tolerate terrible living conditions and pay such exorbitant prices for such dangerous and limited living space. Although the city has an ambitious goal to build 17,000 new homes by 2024 with 28 percent of those units earmarked for low-income families, in reality the 10,000 building permits issued thus far have only 7 percent reserved for affordable housing.
The need is obvious and stark. 28 units in a new affordable housing development were recently offered to local renters. There were more than 4,000 applications for those 28 units. Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf called the onslaught of applications “shocking, disheartening, and absolutely troubling,” and added, “28 units is a drop in the bucket compared to the need right now.”
In that development, residents were eligible to apply for the reserved units if they were making 30-50 percent of the area median income (AMI). This meant a single earner in the family would need to be earning $73,100 a year, and a family of four would need to earn $104,400 to be eligible. According to an affordability study conducted by Berkeley researchers, about two in every five Oakland households are “rent-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.
When Opportunity Meets Predatory Behavior
Given the dearth of affordable housing options in Oakland, you might think the city might give landlords struggling to offer affordable housing options of any type a little more leeway than it appears, at first glance, Oakland is giving the Manns. However, emphasized city attorney Barbara Parker in public statements about the case, the landlords have had literal years to address the issues in the lawsuit, none of which have to do with the cost of rent.
Parker explained, “In the midst of a devastating housing crisis in Oakland, the defendants have…exploited these tenants in a way that is both illegal and inhumane.” She noted the defendants received at least 22 notices on just six properties since 2018 and were given the opportunity to address the problems. Now, the city is not asking the tenants be removed from the premises but, instead, that the real estate companies and their owners “immediately and permanently fix all habitability problems at their buildings” and pay fees, penalties, and restitution.
Tell us what you think:
- Is Oakland being too easy on these landlords? Too hard?
- Should warehouse owners be permitted to convert these properties to residential units even if the zoning is not appropriate?
- What should be done about the affordability crisis in Oakland?
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