Moratoriums, Covid-19, Rent-Free Living … How Landlords v. Alameda County Took on a Whole New Meaning in Owning Rental Property
WRITTEN BY: Brittany Hunter and Jon Houghton | Pacific Legal Foundation | 14 Minute Read
JOHN WILLIAMS WAS at the end of his rope.
The duplex he owned in Oakland, California, was supposed to be his ticket to a better life. He’d bought it in 2004, only five years after he’d come to the Bay Area as a friendless, homeless yoga teacher. The house was John’s success story: It was now worth a decent amount of money. He was renting it out to tenants, but when he was ready to sell, he’d have enough savings to move to Savannah, Georgia, and open a small flower shop.
That was John’s dream: leaving California to start a new chapter of his life in historic Savannah. For years, it was a hypothetical fantasy. Someday, he thought, when the time is right…
Then, in January 2020, basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. John thought, “Damn. Life really is short, even with a lot of money.”
He started making plans to move, even telling his boss that he planned to be on his way to Georgia by “the end of March.”
But March 2020 was when COVID-19 came to America. Everything ground to a halt. On March 31, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors — which oversees a population of 1.6 million, including Oakland — announced a countywide eviction moratorium: No landlord would be allowed to evict a tenant, even if the tenant stopped paying rent.
John’s upstairs tenant wasn’t a problem; he was John’s nephew. But the downstairs tenant, Mary (not her real name), a single mother with two kids, was always late with the rent.
After the moratorium went into effect, Mary stopped paying rent altogether.
As “two weeks to flatten the curve” turned into months, 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 401(k) to pay the bills. Meanwhile, when he visited the property, he realized that Mary was running a storage business out of her unit and had even changed the lock to the back gate. It seemed she was taking advantage of the moratorium to turn a profit with her rent-free living situation.
John’s only hope was to sell the duplex. In December 2020, believing the moratorium would soon be lifted, John put the house on the market and quickly found a buyer. In preparation for the sale, he gave notice to his nephew and roommates, and they soon moved out of the top unit.
But Mary refused to leave.
Eager to be done with the property, John offered Mary $30,000 and full forgiveness of her back rent if she agreed to move out. She refused. Her attorney emphatically told John that she would not be leaving unless she was given $190,000. Concerned by the situation, John’s buyers backed out of the deal.
John felt like he’d lost control over his life. “I was losing my mind,” he says.
Landlord John Williams on the steps of his Oakland duplex.
‘Cry Me A River’
CALIFORNIA IS CONSISTENTLY ranked one of the worst states in the country to be a landlord. There’s state-wide rent control, caps on application fees, and — where there’s not an outright moratorium — strict rules for the eviction process. In December 2022, Alameda County even became the first county in the country to prohibit landlords from doing criminal background checks on tenants.
Then there’s the anti-landlord sentiment.
“Landlords need to stop whining about the unfairness of California’s eviction ban,” Los Angeles Times columnist Erika D. Smith wrote in August 2020. Landlords, she said, benefit from a system that has “long been tilted in their favor.” She argued that giving in to landlords would be unfair to renters, “many of them black and Latino.” (Since it apparently matters to Ms. Smith, it’s worth noting that John Williams is black, as are the other landlords featured in this article.)
A realtor tried to defend landlords in an October 2020 CityWatchLA op-ed titled “Landlords Are Not the Devil.” She expressed her dismay that #KilltheLandlords and #EattheLandlords had trended on social media.
“Cry me a river, greedy landlords,” one commenter replied.
The Bay Area is especially hostile. Even before the pandemic, people in Oakland and San Francisco tended to treat landlords as an enemy oppressor. “I’ve suddenly become a bad word in this town,” a San Francisco landlord wrote in 2014. “I’ve gone from living as a conventional citizen in a city that has always felt welcoming to being unable to ignore the new sentiment of a seeming majority that’s turned against me.”
Alameda County’s eviction moratorium is absolute: Landlords cannot evict tenants, period. It doesn’t matter if a tenant hasn’t paid rent in a year. It doesn’t even matter if a tenant is violent — as some landlords have unfortunately discovered.
Sheanna and Karl’s Story
SHEANNA AND KARL ROGERS thought they had attained their American Dream when they bought their first home as a young married couple. After two kids, and with another baby on the way, the Rogerses decided to move into a bigger home — but they kept the first house as a rental property.
Years later, Karl lost his job. When trying to decide what to do next in his professional life, Karl proposed to Sheanna that they turn their rental property into a residential care home for adult males with mental health issues. The project was close to Karl’s heart: His brother has schizophrenia.
The couple worked with an agency to fill the home with residents. But the care facility took up only part of the house: There was also a small studio apartment attached to the home. In 2018, a childhood friend of Karl’s, Ryan (not his real name), asked the Rogerses if he could rent the studio for $1,000 per month. They said yes.
“It was supposed to be temporary, until he could land on his feet,” Sheanna says. “Temporary turned into a nightmare.”
Even before the pandemic, people in Oakland and San Francisco tended to treat landlords as an enemy oppressor.
The couple began receiving reports that Ryan had offered meth to residents of the care facility. Worse, Ryan was hostile and threatening. At one point, he pulled out a gun and started waving it in the air while screaming obscenities at the house manager, who just so happened to capture the incident on camera and alerted the police.
But the most frightening moment came in January 2019, when Ryan beat one of the residents with a crowbar. Ryan was arrested and put in jail — but only for a few days. Then he was back at the house.
“He didn’t go to jail for long,” Sheanna said. “That’s a problem out here, too.”
Sheanna and Karl had had enough. They started eviction proceedings. This was long before the pandemic, but even back then, evictions were difficult in California. The process took time.
Months went by. Meanwhile, whenever Ryan saw the Rogerses, he would get in their faces, hurling spine-shivering threats. He once warned, “Keep on pushing this eviction thing and you are going to find yourself six feet under.” At one point, Sheanna’s brother was on the property and heard Ryan on the phone telling the other caller, “Oh yes, they think I’m playing with them. I’ve killed people before. I will hurt them.”
Finally, in February 2020, a court issued an eviction order. Ryan would have to be out by April 1. Sheanna and Karl were relieved: Their nightmare would soon be over.
But in March, the county announced the moratorium.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Ryan told Sheanna and Karl. “So you might as well get ready.”
Sheanna and Karl were helpless. Even though they had a signed eviction order, and even though Ryan had been arrested for attacking a resident at the care facility, the moratorium meant Ryan could continue to live in the Rogerses’ home.
Worried about the other residents’ safety, Sheanna and Rogers closed down the care facility. They didn’t know what else to do. Ryan refused to leave. He was living rent-free in their home and had forced them to shut down their business. Sheanna and Karl had to borrow money to pay for the mortgage and utilities. Ryan, on the other hand, seemed to be flourishing: He bought a boat and a car.
“I can’t get him out of my house,” Sheanna says. “I own the house.”
She and Karl did everything right: They worked hard, put down roots, and were achieving the American Dream. “And now it seems like the government has stolen it from us,” Sheanna says.
BECOMING A LANDLORD used to be a way for middle-class Americans to achieve lasting financial stability.
Jackie Baker knows that firsthand: Her mother was a nurse in the 1960s who worked while raising two daughters. For a black woman in those days, buying property wasn’t easy. But with the help of a fellow nurse, she managed to buy a small rental property on 92nd Avenue in Oakland.
The property was successful, and Jackie’s mother was a good landlord. She eventually bought several other rental properties, creating a legacy for her children.
But it was that first property, on 92nd Avenue, that meant the most to Jackie. She can still remember playing jacks on the floor of the house while her mother painted the walls.
When Jackie’s mother passed away, the properties were divided between Jackie and her sister. Jackie inherited the house on 92nd Avenue. It had a tenant, Sam (not his real name), who seemed to pay the rent on time.
The day Jackie was supposed to have her seventh court appearance was the day the court shut down for COVID.
But suddenly, more than a year after Jackie took over the property, Sam stopped letting her in the house to do repairs. Jackie had to go to court to win the right to enter her own property — and because this was California, the process took a long time.
Finally, after four years and several court appearances, she was allowed into the house.
“When I got into the property, I almost fainted, literally,” Jackie says. “It was destroyed.”
The walls of the unit were layered with tobacco and what was either dog or human feces. The hardwood floors and cabinets were destroyed. He 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.
The situation only got weirder.
One reason Jackie wanted to get inside the apartment was because Sam had covered his windows with tinfoil, which seemed suspicious. Jackie used to work in law enforcement; she recognized the signs that someone might be cooking meth.
This was long before the pandemic: Jackie started the process of evicting Sam in 2017. But the process dragged.
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.
Instead, once the moratorium went into effect, Sam was able to stay in the property he’d destroyed — and now he was able to stop paying rent. His lawyer even tried to demand that Jackie pay $10,000 for Sam to move.
Jackie thought it was crazy.
“The government is saying, ‘Hey, we need your property taxes,’” she points out. “And the banks are saying, ‘Hey, we need your mortgage payments.’ But then Alameda County is saying, ‘The renters don’t have to give you this money that allows you to make these payments.’”
Like other landlords, Jackie figured the moratorium would be short-term. But months passed — then years.
“Every time they extended it, it was like they slapped you in the face,” she says.
THE DECK WAS stacked against John Williams, Sheanna Rogers, and Jackie Baker.
They were all losing money. John was losing his dream of moving to Savannah. Sheanna had lost her residential care facility. Jackie was losing her mother’s legacy. But the Alameda County Board of Supervisors didn’t seem to care.
Sheanna went to a Board of Supervisors meeting. Listening, she thought: “Is there not one person who sits on this board who owns a property?”
John was discouraged. Last year at one point, he thought he was having a heart attack. When he went to the emergency room, the doctors told him it was a panic attack. The stress had gotten to him.
Jackie says a lot of landlords have gone into foreclosure. The county is treating landlords “like we have endless pockets,” Jackie says, “and we don’t.”
With Alameda County refusing to end the moratorium, and little sympathy from the community, John, Sheanna, and Jackie might have given up. If they tried to fight the eviction moratorium in court, their chance of success was slim.
They decided to fight anyway.
With Pacific Legal Foundation’s help, and with two other landlords joining them as plaintiffs, they sued the county, arguing the moratorium violates the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. The government cannot force property owners to keep unwanted tenants who have stopped paying rent, attacked other residents, or destroyed property. Doing so constitutes an uncompensated “taking” of the property, because the government — not the property owners — is deciding who gets to live there.
PLF’s motion for summary judgment was denied in November 2022, a heartbreaking but not-totally-unexpected setback. John, Sheanna, and Jackie are fighting an uphill battle.
“I’m trying to figure out, how do I hold on?” John says. “It’s been three years of no rents at all in my property. That’s where I’m at now.”
At one point during this exhausting ordeal, Sheanna made a passionate plea to a judge, who sympathized with her situation and told her, “These are the kind of things that don’t let me sleep at night. This is why I don’t like this moratorium. These are the hard things that I have to struggle with.”
The judge acted like “his hands were tied,” Sheanna remembers. It felt awful to appeal for justice and get only sympathetic words in return. She wanted things to be set right—not just for her, but for all landlords.
Jackie, too, is fighting for more than just herself. Because she inherited the property on 92nd Avenue from her mother, who had it for decades, there’s no mortgage on the property. In many ways, Jackie is more fortunate than others. But having grown up watching her mother become a successful landlord in Alameda County, Jackie is fighting for the broader principle at stake. If this injustice is allowed to continue, who in the county would ever want to risk renting to tenants again?
“I want to stay in this fight as long as they’ll allow me to stay in it,” she says.
Once when Jackie went to the grocery store, activists approached her with a clipboard and asked her to sign a petition for renters’ rights. She thinks that because she’s black, they assumed she’d be on their side.
Instead, she squared her shoulders and told them, “I’m a landlord. I’m not signing anything.” ♦
PLF is not using the tenants’ real names out of concern they might retaliate against our clients, who have suffered enough.
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