OAKLAND, CA – City Attorney Barbara J. Parker and Centro Legal de la Raza have sued a landlord who attempted to illegally increase his tenant’s rent by pretending he had moved into the downstairs unit of a duplex.
City of Oakland v. Lee, Alameda County Superior Court Case No. RG18897170
In a scheme that has become all too common as Oakland’s housing crisis persists, some landlords are using sham “owner move-ins” as a tactic to evade Oakland’s just cause for eviction and rent control laws.
In this case, landlord Rong Fu Lee concocted a scheme to nearly triple the rent for the tenant in his rent-controlled duplex on Center Street.
Under Oakland law, an owner and certain family members may be entitled to evict a tenant or significantly increase a tenant’s rent by moving into the owner’s property. In the midst of Oakland’s housing crisis some landlords are violating the law by claiming they will move in, or by moving into the property for a brief period, in order to evict tenants or increase rents by exorbitant amounts.
“As Oakland continues to struggle with its historic housing crisis, we are committed to stopping landlords who engage in deceit or coercion to unlawfully raise rents or evict tenants,” City Attorney Parker said. “Depriving tenants of their homes frequently plunges families into poverty and homelessness and uproots them from the community. We are suing unscrupulous landlords because every family that pays rent in Oakland is entitled to decent housing free from harassment and exploitation.”
Since 2003 tenant Salvador Sotelo and his family have lived in the Center Street duplex that Mr. Lee owns. In 2016 Mr. Lee claimed he had been living in the downstairs unit of the duplex for a year, and that the property therefore was exempt from rent control.
However, utility bills showed months with zero water usage in the unit during that time period, and neighbors testified that Mr. Lee visited the property only infrequently. Mr. Lee’s father was even videotaped bringing trash to the property from elsewhere, apparently to make it look like the downstairs unit was occupied.
“The landlord’s conduct in this case caused an immense amount of stress and anxiety for Mr. Sotelo and his family,” said Centro Legal Equal Justice Works Fellow Micaela Alvarez. “Sadly, among the communities we serve, Mr. Sotelo’s experience is all too common. We hope this case demonstrates that landlords will be held accountable for harassment and fraudulent owner move-ins and occupancies."
Mr. Sotelo filed a Rent Adjustment Program petition challenging the rent increase. In October 2017, a hearing officer found that increase was invalid because Mr. Lee had not occupied the unit as his primary residence for the requisite time period.
This was not the first petition Mr. Sotelo filed. In 2014, he filed a petition against Mr. Lee for illegal rent increases and habitability violations. According to the petition, the family had to lock their door with a two by four because the doorjamb was severely rotted and the deadbolt was loose the toilet was broken, and the unit had water damage including mold. A hearing officer ordered Mr. Lee to reduce the rent based on the habitability issues, however, many of those issues continue to this date.
For years, Mr. Lee also has frequently entered Mr. Sotelo’s unit without providing lawful notice, yelled at him, filmed him despite his objections, and told him that he either must vacate the unit or pay unlawful rent increases.
The City Attorney’s Neighborhood Law Corps unit and local nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza filed a joint lawsuit against Mr. Lee on March 16. The City is suing Mr. Lee for violations of Oakland’s Tenant Protection and Just Cause laws, and Centro Legal is suing on behalf of Mr. Sotelo. The lawsuit asks the court to order Mr. Lee to immediately make repairs, refrain from making verbal or written threats against the Sotelo family, and pay penalties and attorney’s fees.
For more information, please see Centro Legal’s FAQ and the City Attorney’s FAQ about owner move-ins.