Tenants’ rights laws are often mysterious and written in language that confuses. (Shutterstock)

Tenants’ rights laws are often mysterious and written in language that confuses. (Shutterstock)

It’s not a good time to be a bad landlord

Tenant Relief Act, at last, is one positive thing for renters

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In January, the state of California passed Senate Bill 91, the Tenant Relief Act, to help renters and landlords financially impacted by the pandemic. Besides extending the eviction moratorium, the bill also devotes $2.6 billion to reimburse property owners for unpaid rent.

Even though most landlords will benefit from the bill by getting 80 percent of money they might otherwise never see, according to Apartment Owners Association News, a trade publication that showed up in my mailbox addressed to a previous occupant or current resident, the AOA is opposed to SB-91 because it challenges a cornerstone of their industry: controlling tenants.

Rent is a form of blackmail, a quasi-protection racket that ensures you pay your landlord a tribute each month in exchange for shelter, i.e., protection from homelessness. Within this system, there is a major imbalance of power between the tenant and the unscrupulous landlord, since the latter has the control. The only way for the tenant to resist this disparity is to not pay rent. But then you’ll end up homeless.

No matter what, a landlord is gonna landlord.

Even if you’re a model tenant, though, and pay your rent on time each month and obey the terms of your lease, you’re still at the mercy of a greedy landlord’s caprices. With little warning, they can raise your rent or barge into “their apartment” for inspections. If they chose, they could evict you under the Ellis Act, or simply sell the building and subject you to the machinations of a new overseer.

As a tenant, it’s hard to find any redeeming qualities in the rental business, where surrendering basic rights is a prerequisite for shelter.

In the classic anarchist text “Rent: An Injustice,” I.R. Ybarra points out that it’s the landlord’s job to constantly remind us that “we are weak, rootless nomads who have a place to live, not by right, but by his lordly whim.” And that a “landlord is driven inexorably by the internal logic of the situation to be … a LORD, and one who keeps his obtrusive presence constantly on hand to rub in the fact that that little humble room or apartment of yours is just a commodity which can be sold to someone else…”

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. Even with a child constantly yammering at me with 50 million questions and assorted demands, I’ve had enough downtime to tackle the stacks of unread books mocking me from the shelf, as well as pursue the various subjects that pique my curiosity throughout the day. Like, how did they build the Hoover Dam? Or, what’s the deal with nuclear submarines? Who were the Assyrians and the Babylonians? And, was our landlord obligated to inform us that a tenant was running an illicit drug operation, with permission, in the apartment upstairs before we moved in with our 3-year-old child?

Sometimes it’s like I’m back in college again. And not just because of the banging, loud music, shouting and general drugged-out shenanigans that penetrate our ceiling. There is that, but mostly because I feel as though I’m cramming for a big test, trying to shove as much information into my brain before it’s time to go back to work.

Like researching tenant rights.

San Francisco and Oakland renters definitely have more rights than other places, but they’re shrouded in mystery and written in confusing language. Most workers don’t have time to even investigate the rules, much less interpret them. We’re too busy with full-time jobs, raising children, dealing with health issues or a multitude of other daily responsibilities that push mental capacity to the limit. Not knowing your rights can have serious consequences though.

Three years ago, at our previous apartment, which was rife with shoddy workmanship, our child bit into a windowsill the day before her 18-month checkup. When her bloodwork came back with such an alarming level of lead, the doctor called us that evening and told us to take her to the ER at Children’s Hospital ASAP. As in, GO! NOW!

At 6 a.m., a public nurse from Alameda County was knocking on our door.

In the frenzy of panicked despair, it never really occurred to us to ask about our rights. We were too freaked out. Overworked, new parents, all alone… we just wanted our child to be healthy.

Our landlord did nothing. She didn’t compensate us for the hotel, the weeks of couch surfing, not even the materials I bought to make the necessary renovations, working through the small hours after my taxi shifts so my family could come back home.

She didn’t even apologize.

After two years of regular blood tests, our daughter’s levels were finally back to normal. The landlord saw her playing in the hallway and said, “She seems so normal.”

In our new place, we’re facing similar circumstances. Except this go-around we have plenty of downtime to research our rights.

So besides traveling across the world via Google Earth and reading the natural history of the Bay Area, I’m also investigating whether a landlord can legally turn his property into a construction zone without following proper protocols for handling lead-laden soil.

The ground in West Oakland is chock full of pollutants. For over a century, this area has been a nucleus of heavy machinery and freight transportation. The original terminus of the transcontinental railroad is only a few blocks away. The shoreline around the port is still congested with railroad tracks and thousands of big rigs hauling off the containers from cargo ships.

When you start digging up the ground, the lead in the dirt becomes an airborne toxic event. It might be reassuring, as a parent of a child who’s already been a victim of lead poisoning, if the person in charge was actually in control. But there’s no indication of that. At least with SB-91 on the books, renters are starting to get a little more power.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions.

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