Despite Moratorium, Bay Area Landlords Are “Taking the Law Into Their Own Hands” to Drive Tenants Out

Counterfeit red tags, changed locks, harassment campaigns, and more.

Mother Jones illustration; Getty

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Early last May, while much of California was still under stay-at-home orders, Afamefuna Odiwe visited a house he owned in East Oakland. He wasn’t living there. He assumed the property to be vacant, according to court documents. But when Odiwe arrived, a pregnant stranger greeted him at the front door. The woman, who has remained anonymous, told Odiwe she was his tenant.

This is how Odiwe may or may not have become the landlord of a little white house on Congress Avenue. 

In the woman’s telling of events, she, her partner, and their daughter had been living in a single room in the 1,200 square foot bungalow for more than a year before Odiwe showed up. They, along with several other families, had been paying rent to a master tenant who represented himself as a sort of informal property manager for Odiwe. Most of the tenants were service industry workers who lost income when the pandemic hit.

In Odiwe’s version, all of the property’s inhabitants weren’t tenants, they were trespassing. And he wanted them gone.

Even before COVID-19, housing disputes were complicated affairs. Back in “normal” times, several thousand evictions were processed each year in Alameda County, often the result of unpaid rent or egregious lease violations. During the pandemic, a patchwork of local and statewide eviction protections were strung together by a (now overturned) moratorium instituted by the CDC, an attempt to stave off a potentially perilous nationwide eviction and homelessness crisis. The moratorium prohibited landlords from kicking out tenants who couldn’t pay their rent due to COVID-related hardship. But in some cases, it just pushed desperate landlords to get more creative in their methods of forcing tenants out. In places like Oakland, which still has relatively strong state and local eviction moratoriums in place, loopholes abound.

Bay Area city officials, lawyers, and tenants-rights activists I spoke to all said that while most eviction proceedings have halted over the past year, they’ve seen an uptick in cases of landlord harassment, lockouts, utilities shutoffs, and other maneuvers to get around the moratorium. When a tenant won’t budge, landlords have resorted to making their homes as inhospitable as possible. “Landlords are just flat-out taking the law into their own hands,” says Joe Tobener, a Bay Area tenants lawyer. It’s hard to ban evictions when the line between a legal and an illegal one is so thin.

Case in point is a “red tag” that was posted on the door of Odiwe’s building a few days before his arrival. The notice said the building was a serious health and safety risk and instructed all inhabitants to move out within 10 days. There was just one hitch: it was a counterfeit. The City of Oakland, which issues the formal notices, had not inspected the property or ordered the tenants to move out. Someone was trying to trick the tenants into leaving. (Odiwe declined to comment for this article, but in an affidavit, he said he doesn’t know where the red tag came from.)

After the first encounter with Odiwe, things escalated quickly. Two days later, the woman awoke at 8 am to find him standing outside her bedroom door. There was a moving truck out front and a locksmith changing the locks. Odiwe instructed the moving company to completely empty the house; they took furniture, clothing, electronics, even the food from the cupboards. The tenants called the cops, who found Odiwe “evasive;” they spoke to his sister, who called the family “squatters” who were impeding their plans to renovate the house.

If the tenants wanted to live in the house “with no windows and no doors and no toilets…that’s on them,” she said.

On paper, evictions can seem dry, procedural. In reality, they’re incredibly emotional—a high stakes conflict between two diametrically opposed parties over a basic need for survival: housing. The pandemic has simply stripped away some of the bureaucracy that typically obfuscates the experience, revealing a process that is “morally suspect” and even cruel

“Landlords are really trying to get creative,” says Carmen Jovel, a housing intake coordinator for the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). The EBCLC, which advocates for low-income tenants in Oakland and surrounding areas, says that they’ve noticed a steady uptick in renters’ complaints about landlords since the start of the pandemic. On average, they’ve gotten 33 calls per month complaining of illegal evictions and 46 calls per month reporting landlord harassment.

The problem has gotten so bad that last fall Oakland’s city attorney created a Housing Justice Initiative to combat the increasing number of unlawful evictions. They’re launching know-your-rights campaigns for local tenants, advocating for policy changes and, of course, suing bad landlords. One of their first cases is against Odiwe, his sister, the master tenant, and the moving company. The city says Odiwe and the others attempted an illegal eviction, as well as committed a whole host of other tenants’ rights violations.

“Our city, like our country, is facing multiple, overlapping pandemics: the pandemics of COVID-19, systemic racism, the destruction of the social safety net, and climate change disaster,” City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement about the launch of the initiative. “In the context of those crises, the harms of housing insecurity—and housing injustice—are multiplied.”

In December, Jovel worked on a case of 10 elderly and disabled Oakland tenants who were 24 hours away from being removed from their longtime home. The property had sold in foreclosure and the new owner claimed it was supposed to be vacant. He filed a forcible detainer, claiming the inhabitants were illegal squatters, not tenants. Only once the EBCLC submitted the tenants’ official leases and tracked down a receipt showing one of the tenants had recently paid rent to the new landlord did he drop the case, allowing the tenants to stay. 

“I think he realized he was caught in a lie,” says Linda Yu, the lawyer on the case. “The sad part about this is that a bad landlord took advantage of the system and it’s only because of sheer luck that they reached us in time.”

While forcible detainers and other costly lawsuits are one way landlords drive tenants away, others turn to “self-help” evictions, a practice where landlords force tenants out without going through the formal legal process. (These types of evictions are illegal regardless of pandemic moratoriums.) Attorneys I talked to recounted horror stories of tenants who had been verbally and physically abused by their landlords, as well as some who had been falsely accused of perpetrating such abuse. Tobener spoke to someone in South San Francisco who had lost work due to the pandemic and struggled to keep up with the rent. Unable to file a formal eviction, the tenant said the landlord resorted to harassing his family in hopes it would drive them to leave.

The landlord called them “dogs, bastards, illegals, freeloaders, [and] jungle bunnies.” The landlord’s family (who lived on-site) made death threats and kept them up at night by loudly stomping upstairs or knocking on the doors and yelling insults. Tobener estimates his office has received about 20 calls recounting similar evictions and harassment every week since the pandemic started.

In the case of the tenant in South San Francisco, the harassment (kind of) worked. After months of strife, the landlord offered to pay the tenants to move out. They took the money and ran. They’re still considering suing the landlord for inflicting severe emotional distress.

“I do feel for some landlords who rely on the income from one or two units and can’t pay their mortgage,” Tobener said, pointing out that California landlords are getting at least some financial assistance during the pandemic. Legislation passed earlier this year guarantees landlords 80 percent of all unpaid rent if they’re willing to forgive nonpayment of the remaining 20 percent. “I do recognize that the problem goes both ways. But I think that it’s the landlords that more often take advantage of the tenant than the tenants take advantage of the landlord. The landlords have all of the economic and social capital—they know how to work these loopholes.”

Though these are particularly egregious examples of landlord behavior, the tenants affected are unfortunately all too typical. Folks who are low-income, non-English speakers, elderly, disabled, or non-citizens are particularly vulnerable to having their right to housing violated. Some don’t know their rights as tenants; others don’t have the money to hire lawyers; sometimes tenants comply with an illegal eviction simply to avoid interacting with police or immigration enforcement. Because of these complicating factors, everyone I talked to warned that rough counts of illegal evictions and landlord harassment would always be a monumental underestimate.

To further complicate matters, many of the most vulnerable tenants also have a disproportionately high risk of contracting, spreading, or dying from coronavirus. Many of Odiwe’s tenants, for example, worked in the service industry. Of the few that kept their jobs, working from home was impossible. Losing their house would exacerbate their already-high COVID risk even further.

“A lot of people who are getting displaced, even if they don’t stay in a car or on the street, they move in with people that they know, which contributes to overcrowding in homes and makes it more difficult to social distance,” Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Sophia Wang said. “More broadly speaking, housing stability is really important for economic recovery and just getting things back to normal.”

Evictions have long been tied to adverse health outcomes. Studies have found housing instability is associated with increased incidence of high blood pressure, heart disease, and mortality, to name a few. Research also suggests that the high health care costs associated with eviction-related ailments make future evictions even more likely. 

If any good has come of the pandemic, it’s that housing is being more widely treated as a public health issue. According to an oft-cited working paper from researchers at Duke University, eviction moratoriums likely reduced coronavirus infections by 3.8 percent and deaths by 11 percent. Had the moratoriums gone into effect nationwide back in March, the researchers, estimate infections could have been reduced by 14 percent; for deaths, it’s more than 40 percent. 

Things got worse for Odiwe’s tenants before they got better. According to court documents, Child Protective Services responded to an anonymous complaint about the tenants shortly after the moving truck left with all of their stuff. Though the family and their housemates were ultimately allowed to stay in the house while the court considers their case, their belongings weren’t returned for more than a week. Everyone slept on the floor. The pregnant woman, just days away from her due date, managed to obtain an air mattress. Bob Salinas, who is representing the tenants in a separate civil case against Odiwe, says even when they got their belongings back, several items were broken, and some personal valuables remain missing.

Police and attorneys later learned that the renovation Odiwe’s sister said was planned had been abandoned. Odiwe’s property went into escrow in mid-May, about two weeks after the phony red tag appeared on the door. The buyer was a real estate investment company, which allegedly made a nearly half a million dollar offer on the house sight unseen. The city posits that Odiwe promised to deliver the property to the new buyer without any tenants, an allegation he has neither confirmed nor denied.

“Note to seller,” the purchase agreement reads. “If you are unable to deliver Property vacant in accordance with rent control and other applicable Law, you may be in breach of this Agreement.”

The lawsuits against Odiwe have been slow-going, at least in part because of the pandemic. The tenants still reside at the property, more than a year later. Though the court granted an injunction against Odiwe and his co-defendants that prohibits them from attempting another extra-judicial eviction, their situation remains tenuous. Some of the tenants are still out of work; all of them are living in fear. 

“They’re wondering if it’s going to happen to them again,” Salinas said. “They’re really scared. And I don’t know if that fear will ever 100 percent go away.”

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