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 one in a series shining a light on the landlords of Alameda County who are being hurt by this unconstitutional ban.
John Williams has a simple dream: selling his rental property in the Bay Area and opening a small flower shop in Savannah, Georgia.
For years, it was just a hypothetical fantasy, one of those dreams to get you through the monotony of the day to day. Someday, when the time was right, John wanted to turn this dream into a reality.
But something always came up.
When basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash at the end of January 2020, John was struck by the brevity of life. “Damn,” he thought to himself. “Life is really short, even with a lot of money.”
That was the day the flower shop ceased being a distant dream. His mind was made up. By the end of March, he would be on his way to Georgia.
Life had other plans.
In March 2020, the world turned upside down as we suddenly found ourselves living out the plot of a Black Mirror episode.
Businesses were shuttered. Schools closed. Jobs lost.
Governments were frantically trying to decide how to navigate these uncharted waters. In Alameda County, one of the first emergency measures taken was to prohibit landlords like John from evicting tenants for any reason during a time of such economic uncertainty.
Wanting to avoid mass homelessness during a global pandemic is understandable. But it is not an excuse to take away a property owner’s right to control what they rightfully own. It’s also unconstitutional.
In explaining what the government is not allowed to do regarding private property rights, the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment says, “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Yet, no compensation has been given. And for landlords like John who rely on their tenants’ rent to provide for their own livelihoods, many have found themselves in dire straits as the ban continues.
John understands the plight of those out of work and struggling to get by. When he first came to the Bay Area in 1999, he was homeless, and he didn’t know a soul in the area. But he is nothing if not a survivor, and he did what he could to get back on his feet.
John took his passion for mindfulness practices and turned it into a career. He taught yoga and meditation in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and marginalized communities. In 2004, he was able to buy a duplex in Alameda County.
Being a property owner felt like a surefire way to secure his financial future. But that future wouldn’t be as secure as he had hoped.
John has a generous heart and, with three bedrooms to spare, he considered adoption or foster care to help give back to his community members who needed help. In a serendipitous turn of events, a foster program that helped older children learn the life skills needed to transition into adulthood asked John if they could rent his downstairs unit to house the kids.
This seemed like the perfect life path, and he immediately agreed. Eventually, he moved himself into a studio apartment and rented both units to the foster program.
Over time, it became painfully clear that the program was not yielding fruitful results. The kids weren’t thriving or learning the necessary skills they needed to be self-sufficient. With a heavy heart, he had to end his partnership and began renting his units to regular tenants.
In 2013, a single mother and her two young children moved into his downstairs unit. The mother couldn’t afford to pay the market rate for the home. But John felt compelled to help.
In 2008, his own mom had been diagnosed with throat cancer—a gut-wrenching experience for him to watch. As her condition worsened, she lost her ability to speak. “She would cry,” John recalls, “but you wouldn’t hear it. You would just see her screaming, but no sound coming out.”
His grief was still fresh, and in some small way allowing his new tenant to rent his unit at a discounted monthly price felt like he was helping his own mother.
But his generosity was quickly abused by the tenant he wanted so much to help.
She was always late with rent. When he sent messages asking for payment, he never got immediate responses. She always had an excuse. Finally, in February of 2020, he began preparing to evict her. But after she came to him with yet-another reason as to why she missed the payment, he decided to give her one more chance.
Just a few weeks later, the world shut down, and the tenant claimed that she had been financially impacted and could not pay her rent. John asked for proof of the hardship; he got none. And as “two weeks to flatten the curve” turned into months, and months into years, John’s own financial situation was hanging by a thread.
Without the ability to collect the rent, he was forced to begin pulling money out of his 401k to pay his bills.
By September 2020, he realized that his current situation was unsustainable. The best option for him was to put the duplex on the market and wash his hands of the whole thing.
When he came by with a real estate agent to look at the property, he tried to get into the backyard, which had never posed any problems in the past. Even though it led to the tenant’s unit, it contained his toolshed.
“When she moved in, she had a key to the toolshed. I had a key to the gate. Gave her a key to the gate. Always, whenever I go back, I say, ‘Hey,’ knock-knock, I come into the backyard.”
But things were different this time.
As he began to open the gate, she came outside yelling and threatening John, claiming that he was scaring her and her children.
When he came back shortly after with a repair man, he was shocked to find that the lock on the gate had been changed. She once again came out yelling, armed with a camera as she accused him of harassment.
John was mystified, to say the least. He couldn’t imagine why she was becoming so defensive after years of no issues. The mystery was soon solved.
John discovered that his tenant had been operating a storage business out of her unit and the backyard—that explained why she didn’t want him going back there. This was a particularly infuriating discovery; she was earning money running a business out of an apartment she was living in rent-free.
But the story continued to escalate.
John drove by one day to find a huge cross-country U-Haul truck in front of the house. About ten workers were going back and forth moving large pieces of furniture. John wasn’t the only one who was confused. The neighbors also expressed concerns over what was happening in the duplex.
The moving truck situation was fishy, and John eventually called the police to file a report.
It came to light that the tenant had another apartment on the same street where she had been operating a massage business. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she had also applied for PPE loans.
But John never received a penny of rent. His only hope was to sell the home and get out of this mess. There was a light at the end of the tunnel in December 2020 when he had lined up a buyer for the property.
In preparation for the sale, John gave notice to his nephew and his friends, who were renting out the top unit, and they soon moved out. The downstairs tenant refused to leave and then slapped him with a lawsuit for harassment and claimed the apartment “uninhabitable.”
Eager to be done with this hellish ordeal, John offered her $30,000 and full forgiveness of her back rent if she agreed to move out. She refused and her attorney emphatically told John that she would not be leaving unless she was given $190,000.
John kept praying the eviction ban would be lifted. But a reprieve never came.
Concerned by the situation, his buyers backed out of the deal. Since then, John has had several prospective buyers, but it has been the same story every time. John was at wit’s end. The constant panic and stress from the situation weighed on his mind and his body. In September 2021, he went to the emergency room after suspecting a heart attack.
The doctors thankfully ruled out a heart attack and attributed his physical health ailments to stress. After several days in the hospital, he was released. The health issues have persisted, and he has been on disability ever since.
As his economic situation continued to deteriorate, he had to move into the upstairs unit just above the tenant causing him so many problems.
This past summer, the tenant and her daughter were spotted moving boxes out of the house. The neighbors had heard rumors that she bought a place. Yet, she still refuses to leave the unit and with the eviction ban still in place, there was nothing John could do about it.
Until he found Pacific Legal Foundation.
PLF is helping John and other property owners fight for their constitutional right to dictate what they do with their own property. While they are relieved to have our support, the legal proceedings have been an uphill battle.
On behalf of John and the other landlords, we filed a motion for partial summary judgment. Unfortunately, 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.
As we await the court’s response, all John can do is mark time.
Upon meeting John, it is instantly clear that he has a resilient spirit. Even so, when he realized the lengthy timeline of his case, his eyes reflected the sentiment of a man who is nearing the end of his rope.
He’s now gone three years without being able to collect rent or sell the unit, and he can’t work because of his health. But he’s thankful to have someone in his corner fighting with him.
“I can’t imagine, to continue to feel the hopelessness that was felt earlier on, prior to being fortunate to tag along on this ride and to be fortunate to have a conversation with PLF.”
As he waits for some semblance of justice, he is doing what he can to accept his current situation while dreaming of the day he finally makes it to Savannah.
“It really saddens me. I’m trying to recapture where I was. Because at the beginning of COVID, when we got to the lockdown, two of my nephews, we started doing mindfulness online with young boys of color in middle schools. I was doing a morning sit with a community of people, I was leading it. But, I think maybe a year ago February just got so bad where I couldn’t even be in peace doing those conversations or meditation anymore. I was just so overwhelmed by this.”