News from Oakland City Attorney
Barbara J. Parker
One of Oakland's legal battles against the current federal administration ended in a victory for our democracy last week when Trump announced he would abandon his plan to include a question about citizenship status on the 2020 census.
Experts said the question would drastically undercount residents in states like California with large immigrant populations, thereby disenfranchising millions of Americans across the country and giving an unfair advantage to mostly white, Republican areas. For California, the resulting undercount would have jeopardized at least one Congressional seat and at least one elector in the electoral college; and California would have lost billions of federal dollars over the next decade since many dollars are based on population. Of course, we all know that was Trump's real goal all along. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court rightly saw through his contrived and obviously fake rationale that the question was needed to "help enforce the Voting Rights Act."
Below please find more information about this important case and Oakland's role in it. Also in this newsletter: a new lawsuit we filed to hold accountable the owners of an Oakland real estate empire who systematically abused tenants' rights; a new ordinance that I authored to improve access to housing for low-income renters in Oakland; and a hard-fought settlement securing hundreds of millions of dollars for lead paint abatement in Oakland and other California communities.
As always, we look forward to your questions and comments about the work we are doing on behalf of the people of Oakland.
Barbara J. Parker
Oakland City Attorney
City Attorney files major tenant protection lawsuit against the owners of Oakland real estate empire
In June, my Office filed a lawsuit charging the leaders of a prominent local real estate and taxi empire with systematically violating the rights of tenants at buildings owned by their family companies.
Defendants Baljit Singh Mann and Surinder Mann have extensive business interests in Oakland, including the Friendly Cab company and at least 150 properties.
Through multiple companies, the defendants own and operate numerous rental properties where tenants, including families with young children and pregnant women, have been subjected to grave risks to their health, safety and lives in flagrant violation of Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance. At least one family became temporarily homeless because of the landlords’ negligence.
Since at least 2016, the defendants have rented
uninhabitable or dilapidated
units in buildings across the city to tenants who are often low-income immigrants and speak little to no English
. Defendants have profited from this predatory business model by renting unsafe units to tenants who are desperate to find affordable housing, and often are unable to take legal action to defend their rights.
The defendants in this case are textbook predatory landlords who have profited for years from willfully violating the basic legal and human rights of tenants. In the midst of a devastating housing crisis in Oakland, they have used their wealth and power
to help vulnerable families, but to exploit tenants in a way that is both illegal and inhumane. This business model, based on systematic abuse of tenants’ rights, ends now.
In Oakland alone, defendants own an estimated 150 properties, including vacant lots, commercial properties, single family homes, duplexes, mixed-use buildings and apartment complexes.
The lawsuit filed June 10 by my Office's
Neighborhood Law Corps
focuses on six properties located in East Oakland where defendants have received at least 22 notices from the City regarding serious violations. Three of those six properties were completely or partially red tagged by the City’s Code Enforcement unit.
The core of our complaint is a commercial storage warehouse at
276 Hegenberger Road (
that the defendants converted into 18 units and rented out as living space in violation of Oakland law. Defendants also illegally rented a 500-600 square foot storage shed attached to the warehouse as living space that at least two families shared. All of these units were unsafe and unfit for human habitation.
After one tenant complained to the City, the Code Enforcement unit documented numerous serious health and safety violations including:
- Lack of safe egress.
- All units lacked smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
- No heat in units.
- No hot running water.
- Unpermitted and dangerous gas lines.
- Unpermitted and shoddy construction that led to structural problems.
- Serious fire hazards including dangerous electrical wiring and excessive use of extension cords.
- Improper venting of kitchen stoves and water heaters.
- Lack of ventilation in all units.
- Roof leaks.
- Ceilings too low for habitable spaces.
- No garbage or waste removal services.
- Infestations of cockroaches, rats and mice.
- Generally dilapidated living conditions.
Code Enforcement issued a Notice to Abate the violations in February 2018, which stated that the uninhabitable conditions at the property presented a serious threat to the lives, health, safety and welfare of the tenants and the public. The owners failed to fix many of the above problems, and eventually Code Enforcement red tagged the property in June 2018.
Not only did defendants’ misconduct create dangerous conditions for all of the tenants living at the property, it also led directly to their displacement. At least one former tenant became temporarily homeless after leaving the property.
Code Enforcement has found similar substandard and dangerous conditions – including lack of egress and other major safety hazards – at all six rental buildings that the City Attorney’s complaint addresses. And apart from violations at the buildings identified in the complaint, the City has received numerous complaints about living conditions from tenants in the defendants’ other buildings; Code Enforcement has documented at least 29 additional violations at 20 other properties owned by the defendants.
Time and again, defendants have refused to make repairs, despite complaints from tenants and notices from the City. When they do make repairs, they often do so without obtaining required permits or inspections. And when defendants have submitted permit applications, they have apparently done so only to maintain a fiction that they are planning to bring properties into compliance, and then have allowed those applications to lapse after failing to provide plans or other required information.
The recurring hazardous conditions – and the defendants’ ongoing bad faith responses to complaints from tenants and enforcement by the City – demonstrate a pattern and practice of violating Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance, which I developed with Councilmember Dan Kalb in 2014 to protect Oakland tenants from this type of abhorrent behavior. The defendants’ predatory business model also represents an ongoing and severe public nuisance for tenants, neighbors and others.
Our lawsuit asks the court to order the defendants to immediately and permanently fix all habitability problems at their buildings, and in addition we request fees, penalties and restitution to be determined by the court.
Legal battle against census citizenship question ends in victory for our democracy, defeat for Trump
The legal battle against adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census ended in a major victory on July 11 after Trump said his administration would abandon the effort to include the question and defend against lawsuits brought by cities, states and civil rights organizations across the country, including Oakland.
In June, the United States Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s plan to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census, ruling that the administration’s rationale for including it on the census was “contrived.” Trump initially said his administration would move forward with the question anyway, but on July 11 he announced that he is dropping his effort.
This is an important victory for our democracy – and reminds us why we must continue and redouble our efforts to fight this administration’s efforts to undermine it. Not only was the attempt to add a citizenship question unconstitutional, it was a flagrant and transparent attempt to undercount and thereby disenfranchise millions of American citizens across the country to tip the scale in favor of Republicans and whites.
Yet again, this administration has demonstrated that it will stop at nothing to trample the rights guaranteed by our constitution. In the census case, the target was immigrants, their U.S. citizen family members and their neighbors. But this case was just one part of a much larger effort by Trump and his allies to halt and roll back the progress of human rights and basic modern values. Undermining voting rights of African Americans, particularly in the South; eroding the right to choose, particularly in the South; blocking members of a particular religion from entering the country; reversing progress on LGBTQ rights, including the right to serve in the military; forcibly separating children from parents who are
seeking asylum on the Southern border – each of these actions is horrific and inhumane. But together they are attempts to turn back the hands of time to an era when these types of unconstitutional policies and practices were a commonplace feature of our society, erasing the progress that our country has made to protect voting rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and freedom of religion.
At least in the census case, the Trump administration’s transparent dishonesty was its own undoing.
The Constitution mandates that the federal government conduct a census every ten years to determine an accurate population count of individuals – regardless of citizenship status. The national census has not included a citizenship question since 1950.
Experts including the U.S. Census Bureau itself said that inclusion of a citizenship question on the Census would discourage noncitizens, their family members and others from participating in the Census, and would significantly undercount residents of states like California with large immigrant populations. The resulting undercount would jeopardize at least one of California’s seats in Congress and billions of dollars in federal funds to which California is entitled for fire prevention, disaster relief, infrastructure and other critical needs.
Almost 11 million immigrants are living in the U.S. without legal permission (the lowest level since 2003), according to the Center for Migration Studies. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that at least 630,000 households would refuse to fill out the census if it includes a citizenship question.
In fact, that was the whole point, according to material found on the hard drives of deceased Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, an architect of the government’s attempt to add the question. Hofeller wrote that adding the question would allow for even more extreme gerrymandering and “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
The Trump administration argued that the citizenship question would help to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Courts around the country rightly found that this rationale was utterly dishonest and contrived. Trump ultimately tried snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat by issuing an executive order to obtain citizenship information from various federal agencies.
Oakland was a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits that challenged the addition of the question. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed the lawsuit on March 26, 2018. Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the cities of Oakland, Fremont, Stockton, Los Angeles and Long Beach joined as plaintiffs.
The Supreme Court ruling addressed two separate lawsuits that were consolidated in New York: one filed by a group of states, counties and cities including San Francisco, and one filed by non-governmental organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union.
In March, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California also blocked the question in the case filed by California and Oakland. “In short, the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census threatens the very foundation of our democratic system,” Judge Richard Seeborg declared in his ruling. Judge Seeborg also wrote that including a citizenship question would violate the U.S. Constitution in that it “is fundamentally counterproductive to the goal of obtaining accurate citizenship data about the public.”
Council adopts City Attorney ordinance improving access to housing for low-income tenants
On July 16, the City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance that I authored to improve access to housing for low-income tenants.
Access to Low-Income Housing
, co-sponsored by me and Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Nikki Fortunado Bas, will ensure that landlords cannot turn away or otherwise discriminate against tenants who depend on housing assistance from programs like the Housing Choice Voucher ("HCV") Program (also known as the Section 8 program). In short, the ordinance requires
treatment for all tenants, regardless of whether they rely on assistance to be able to pay rent.
In this historic housing crisis, many Oakland families cannot afford rent without help.
As demand for rental housing in the Bay Area has soared, incomes have stagnated, resulting in increased competition for a limited supply of affordable housing. Tenants who depend on programs like Section 8 often face discrimination from landlords who refuse to rent to anyone receiving government assistance, or who use underhanded and illegal tactics to force out Section 8 tenants.
Over the past year, the City of Oakland has received numerous reports of landlords openly refusing to rent to HCV holders. Many of these landlords include phrases like “NO Section 8” in online advertisements for their units; others wait until after families submit an application or schedule an appointment to view the unit to communicate that they will not accept HCVs as a method of payment.
In February 2018, city staff conducted a Craigslist search for one-bedroom units renting for $2,000 per month or less in downtown Oakland –
28 of the first 100 unique advertisements indicated that recipients of housing assistance would not be considered. Blanket policies of this nature are demoralizing to families who rely on housing assistance to pay rent and perpetuate the very disparities in access to safe and affordable housing that the HCV Program was designed to remedy.
The EQUAL ordinance will prohibit landlords from taking actions based on a tenant’s participation in a Housing Assistance program including (but not limited to):
- Refusing to rent a unit, requiring different rental terms or misrepresenting the availability of a unit.
- Advertising or communicating that no Section 8 tenants may apply.
- Refusing or restricting facilities, services, repairs or improvements (some landlords have gone so low as to refuse repairs in order to make units uninhabitable, and therefore no longer eligible for Section 8 assistance).
- Terminating a tenancy.
- Using a financial standard that privileges income or payments made directly by prospective tenants or prejudices reliance on housing assistance.
This law will help to close a major loophole that has exacerbated the housing crisis and housing injustice for many Oaklanders.
cities and counties announce $305 million settlement of landmark lead paint litigation
After nearly 20 years of hard-fought litigation, Oakland and nine other cities and counties have secured a
$305 million settlement
from lead paint manufacturers to clean up lead paint that poisons tens of thousands of children across California each year.
County of Santa Clara, et al. v. Atlantic Richfield Company, et al.
, Santa Clara County Superior Court, Case No. 1-00-CV-788657
Under the settlement agreement announced July 17, defendants Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra Grocery Products and NL Industries, Inc. will pay $305 million to the Counties of Santa Clara, Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Mateo, Solano, and Ventura; the City and County of San Francisco; and the Cities of Oakland and San Diego to address lead paint-related hazards, which continue to be one of the most significant environmental hazards for children in California and around the country.
This settlement affirms that major companies cannot knowingly harm Californians and get away with it. Lead paint is prevalent in Oakland homes and disproportionately impacts African American, Hispanic, Asian and other communities of color and low-income communities. In this case, the defendants knew they were selling a product that poisoned children, yet they continued to market it as safe and sell it on a massive scale – in fact most homes built before 1978 contain lead paint hazards. The settlement makes it possible to clean up the homes of our most vulnerable residents and reaffirms that these companies are accountable for the harm their products caused and continue to cause to California’s children.
The settlement allows the ten cities and counties to access abatement funds without further delay, and gives the cities and counties greater flexibility to create more expansive, efficient and effective clean-up programs tailored to the needs of their communities.
In 2000, the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office filed this landmark case to hold former lead paint manufacturers responsible for promoting lead paint for use in homes despite their knowledge that the product was highly toxic. Oakland and the other cities and counties joined thereafter.
Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, the effects of which are irreversible. Although lead paint was banned for residential use in 1978, it is still present in millions of homes in California and continues to be to the leading cause of childhood lead poisoning in California.
In 2014, after a six-week trial, the Santa Clara County Superior Court ruled that three former lead paint manufacturers – Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra Grocery Products and NL – were liable for knowingly marketing a toxic product. The court ordered the defendants to provide the funds needed to clean up lead paint in all homes built before 1978 in the ten cities and counties.
In 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld the Superior Court’s decision, but limited the defendants’ liability to pre-1951 homes. The California Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court each declined to review the Court of Appeal’s precedent-setting decision.
Prior to settlement, we were continuing to litigate issues related to the final judgment and the process through which defendants would pay for the lead paint clean-up ordered by the California courts. The court had imposed a time limit of four years on the use of the funds allotted for abatement, after which remaining funds would be returned to the defendants. The court also had restricted the funds to certain kinds of remediation projects, excluding homes built after 1950 and areas contaminated by exterior paint, for example.
The settlement gives cities and counties the flexibility to clean up those and other types of lead hazards. It also allows the funds to go to treatment programs for children with lead poisoning. In addition, it ensures that all of the $305 million paid by the defendants can be used to address lead hazards, without the threat that any of the funds will revert back to the defendants.
The ten plaintiff cities and counties will divide the settlement funds based on the amount of homes with lead paint in their jurisdictions. They will then set up local clean-up programs designed to meet the needs in each city or county. We estimate that Oakland and Alameda County will jointly administer more than $20 million, although amounts are not yet final.