In Alameda County, California, a pandemic-era eviction ban has been in place for almost three years, even though COVID no longer poses the same threat it once did.
As a result, “mom and pop” landlords have found themselves losing their livelihoods and dealing with problematic, and sometimes violent, tenants with no way to get rid of them, and with little sympathy or support from their local government.
This is part three in a series shining a light on the landlords of Alameda County who are being hurt by this unconstitutional ban.
Jackie Baker can still remember playing jacks on the floor of her family’s first rental property on 92nd Avenue while her mother painted the unit and tended to the repairs requested by the tenant who lived there at the time.
Decades later, that same house would also serve as the backdrop for a years-long legal battle and tens of thousands of dollars in damages done by an unruly tenant who was allowed to stay and destroy the house, thanks to Alameda County, California’s unconstitutional eviction ban.
In the 1960s, Jackie’s mother worked as a nurse while raising her two daughters on her own. She dreamed of owning property, but as a black woman, buying in East Oakland just wasn’t feasible.
One day at work, she was dreaming out loud in the breakroom and explaining the obstacles that stood in her way when a fellow nurse approached her with an interesting offer. If Jackie’s mother could put up the money for the property, the woman would buy it and then immediately turn it over to the family.
This seemed almost too good to be true and Jackie’s mother was skeptical. As a black woman living in a time of escalating racial tension, she had valid reasons to fear getting into an arrangement with a white woman. If the coworker didn’t turn the property over to her, she could lose everything.
After much thought, she accepted the offer and, thankfully, the coworker lived up to her word.
Building on the opportunity that she had been given, Jackie’s mother was subsequently able to rent out the 92nd Avenue property to create an inheritance for her children.
Jackie’s mother was the kind of landlord you hope to have. She always tended to repairs promptly and always collected the rent in person to build a relationship with her tenants, who loved and respected her in return. Jackie remembers one elderly tenant, Miss Juanita, who had been a tenant of hers for so long that Jackie’s mother allowed her to pick the paint colors, carpeting, and appliances in the unit. She even personally took her shopping to choose her options.
For Jackie’s mother, her job as a landlord wasn’t just a source of income. Brick by brick, she was building a legacy for her two daughters to inherit. When she passed, her properties were divided between Jackie and her sister. Jackie was given ownership of 92nd Avenue. Eventually, it was rented to a new tenant, Sam (not his real name).
For the first year, everything ran smoothly. Jackie didn’t know much about Sam because he had dealt with a property manager she had hired when he moved in. All she knew is that Sam was a part of the Section 8 housing voucher program—which provided government assistance to those who are elderly, disabled, or have a very low income—and he always paid the rent on time.
During the second year, things took a turn.
Just as her mother had done, Jackie always did annual inspections of her rental properties to make sure the units were being cared for and to stay on top of repairs. She always gave the proper notice, and none of her tenants had any problem with this, except for Sam.
That second year, Sam refused to let Jackie inside the house.
When a plumber had gone into the house to fix a leak, he immediately called Jackie and told her she needed to get into the unit right away and see what Sam had done. But after Sam prevented her from entering, Jackie was forced to wait—for four years. Finally, after several court appearances, Jackie was allowed to step inside the property. When she did, she was left speechless.
“When I got into the property, I almost fainted, literally,” she says. “It was destroyed.”
The first moment of shock came when she entered the yard. The entire yard was covered in dog waste that had never been cleaned up, even though the lease expressly forbids dogs. A loud buzzing sound was coming from behind an odd, out-of-place drape that had been placed over the walkway. Frightened that it might be bees, which she’s highly allergic to, Jackie threw a rock toward the sound of the buzzing.
It wasn’t bees. It was a wall of flies that made the yard their home due to the revolting conditions of the yard. Jackie was sick to her stomach. It was about to get worse.
The walls of the unit were layered with tobacco and what was either dog or human feces. The hardwood floors and the cabinets were destroyed. Sam had even broken all the shelves with the sledgehammer.
To fix what had been done, Jackie was going to have to pay nearly $100,000 in addition to the thousands she paid to get the yard sanitized.
The situation only got weirder.
Another reason Jackie wanted to get inside the apartment was because Sam had covered his windows with tinfoil, which seemed suspicious. Jackie has a background in law enforcement and recognized the signs that someone might be cooking meth, which appeared to be confirmed when she later saw burn marks on the wall above the kitchen stove. He had also been growing marijuana in the yard.
Sam wasn’t just unsanitary; he was impossible to deal with.
When Jackie first encountered Sam, he refused to believe she owned the house. He demanded to see her ID and took a picture of it and then told her that he “didn’t think a black person” would own the property. The neighbors couldn’t handle him either.
“It was so extreme,” Jackie said. “I had neighbors complaining about him. I tried to rent the front unit that has now been empty for two years and he would come out of his unit scratching his private area, letting his dogs loose, coming out with his pants sagging.”
Jackie had reached the end of her rope in 2017 and began the eviction process.
The Bay Area is the epicenter of the radical renters’ rights movement. Getting a tenant out, no matter how bad they may be, is exceedingly difficult. Jackie had to go to court several times and endure delays that sometimes lasted months.
The day Jackie was supposed to have her seventh court appearance was the day the court shut down for COVID.
“By the time the pandemic happened, he should have been gone,” Jackie said. Yet, the courts kept telling her to give him more time.
Alameda County’s eviction ban went into effect before the eviction process was complete. Not only was there no way to evict Sam, but the ban also gave him the option to stop paying rent altogether—an opportunity he seized.
There was only one way to get around the court’s eviction ban: have the property condemned.
No landlord would see this option as ideal. Once the city condemns the property, the owner must pay to have it brought back up to code, which meant completely rewiring and replacing plumbing, and a new foundation, among other things.
Sam’s damage had already cost Jackie an absurd amount of money, but what other choice did she have?
“Enough is enough,” she thought. “Let’s just condemn the property. I cannot continue to see this man tear down my legacy.”
Even with the possibility of the property being condemned, Sam’s lawyer was asking for $10,000 to get out of the house. He also wanted his full deposit back. Jackie was not going to give in to either of his demands. The thought of having to pay Sam to leave in addition to paying to fix the damage he caused was outrageous to Jackie. She told the judge that he wasn’t getting a dime from her.
In August, Sam finally left. Money that was supposed to go to Jackie under the California Rent Relief Act was accidentally sent to Sam instead. But rather than turn that money over to Jackie, he took her money and left. But despite never getting the funds she was entitled to, Jackie fortunately never had to proceed with the process of having the property condemned.
It would have been easier for Jackie to give up and let the property fall into disrepair, but for her it represented so much more than just a house.
“I’m holding on to 92nd because I feel like I’m betraying my mom.”
Jackie had been fighting so hard for this house because it was the first property that her mom had owned. To see somebody purposely tear it apart was devastating.
“My mom was a single parent and she said she was doing all this because she wanted to pass this legacy along to us,” she says.
Jackie’s mother always told her, “If you treat people good, they’ll treat your property good. Nobody has a right to live in a condition where something is broken and it’s just not fixed.”
Her mother always saw herself in Jackie.
“I knew you would be the daughter that would follow in my footsteps,” her mother always told her. “I knew it, it would always be you.”
Jackie joined other small landlords in a suit against Alameda County and its unconstitutional eviction ban that allowed Sam to stay in Jackie’s house rent-free while he destroyed what her mother had built. PLF is representing the landlords free of charge, but the case has come up against many obstacles that are, sadly, not surprising, given the preference the county gives to renters.
While we filed a motion for partial summary judgment on behalf of our clients, on November 22, the judge denied the motion. But the fight isn’t over. We will be asking to appeal the judge’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Property owners should be able to decide who gets to stay in their property. And the government cannot deny them compensation by enforcing a ban that allows tenants to stop paying rent. The Fifth Amendment was added to our Constitution to protect property owners from this very situation.
Jackie isn’t a callous woman. She understands the serious homelessness problem facing the Bay Area. But the ban caused severe strain on landlords who were also suffering. And the county has ignored them.
“When is it going to be over? Please. When is it going to be over? Every time they extended it, it was like they slapped you in the face and they stabbed you.”