JFKU Housing Advocacy Clinic Kicks Butt in Oakland Housing Case

The John F. Kennedy University Housing Advocacy Clinic scored a victory this summer that stands as a triumph for renters citywide. By preventing one landlord from establishing grounds to remove a unit from rent control, the clinic prevented their client from being forced out of his longterm Oakland home. In doing so, they also set an important precedent benefitting renters throughout the city.

“A win like this doesn’t just preserve the home, it preserves the climate in the community,” explains Ora Prochovnick, professor in the College of Law, JD Program at JFKU and Director of the Housing Advocacy Clinic. “If we want a city that has young people, artists, people of color, and more diversity, then we need to send a message that landlords cannot use loopholes and fabrications and conjectures to get around rent control.” The HAC’s recent victory sends just that message.

Just over a year ago, an Oakland landlord filed a petition seeking a determination that their two-unit building be deemed exempt from rent control protections based on the ground of what is known as substantial rehabilitation. Removing rent control protections is a big deal. By only allowing landlords to increase the rent by a certain percentage each year, rent control serves as one significant protection the law affords to renters that prevents them from being helplessly at the whim of market shifts. This safeguard is an especially big deal in the current housing climate in which market rates have skyrocketed, threatening renters without rent control protection with displacement from their homes.

Indeed, many residents have been displaced, and the practice of seeking loopholes to undermine rent control protection has become more common among landlords seeking to cash in on sky-high rental rates. Of course, not all landlords who make a case for the dissolution of their building’s rent control are doing so sheerly out of greed. In fact, some have a legitimate cause. The substantial rehabilitation exemption, for example, allows landlords to do away with rent control if they have spent at least fifty percent of the cost for new construction on a rehabilitation project. This exemption is crucial to seeing that landlords are not dissuaded from keeping old buildings in good condition. Unfortunately, it is also subject to exploitation that puts renters at risk.

In the case of this recent victory, the Housing Advocacy Clinic prevented the landlord from proving their renovations were substantial enough to warrant the exemption. Particular congratulations go to Thomas Butzbach who worked hard on this case and argued the hearing. Had the landlord proven their case, the rent on the unit could have been raised by $1000 per month, effectively forcing the renter, a young man of diverse background, to leave his long-time home and likely Oakland altogether. Meanwhile, Oakland, a place where affordable housing is increasingly scarce, would have lost two more units of rent-protected housing. Perhaps most importantly, a message would have been sent that the exemption is easily attained, opening the floodgates for attempts at exploitation. Instead, the HAC’s victory sends a message that landlords must have solid proof for their case. Go HAC and JFKU law students!

Behind every great article is a college.