Smith v. City of Oakland-Press Release

People with Disabilities Charge That Oakland’s Rent Stabilization Program Excludes Them and Must Be Fixed Notwithstanding Costa-Hawkins

August 28, 2019 – Oakland, CA – A class action lawsuit was filed today alleging that people with disabilities are discriminatorily excluded from the protections of Oakland’s rent stabilization program, colloquially known as “rent control.” Oakland’s rent stabilization program provides a majority of the city’s renters with meaningful protection from rapidly rising rents. However, people with mobility disabilities are uniquely barred from this protection; Oakland’s program exempts every building constructed after January 1, 1983, from its coverage—yet laws establishing accessibility standards about essential features like stair-free entryways and grab bars went into effect years after that date. As a result, nearly every accessible rental unit in Oakland is excluded from the City’s rent control program. Read the Complaint Here.

The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Advocates (“DRA”) and the Public Interest Law Project (“PILP”) on behalf of three individuals with disabilities and a proposed class of all other Oakland renters with disabilities who need accessible housing.

One plaintiff, Ian Smith, uses a wheelchair and needs to live in an accessible apartment, but he has never been able to find one in Oakland that is subject to rent stabilization. Since moving to his accessible Oakland apartment in 2012, Mr. Smith’s rent has increased by over 70 percent, including a 37 percent jump in 2015 alone.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Oakland must modify its rent stabilization program so that people who need accessible housing can access the same benefits that the city affords to its nondisabled renters, on the same terms. Because the requirements of the federal ADA supersede state law, Oakland must modify its program even if California’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which imposes limitations on local rent control policies, would not otherwise allow it.

Plaintiff Ian Smith is still able to afford his rent, for now, but he observes that many other renters with disabilities are not so lucky: “A lot of us are caught in a real bind—we can’t live in any of the units that are covered by rent control (often, we can’t even get in the door), but living in an accessible unit with no protections means we can be displaced by rising rents at any time.”

This is precisely what has happened to Plaintiff Sunday Parker, who also needs to live in an accessible apartment, and who has had to move several times because huge rent increases made the one she was living in unaffordable.

Because they cannot afford the rapid rent increases that exclusion from Oakland’s rent stabilization program often entails, other people with mobility disabilities choose to “make do” with inaccessible but rent-stabilized apartments, even if this means struggling every day to do simple things like entering and exiting their home, using the bathroom, or cooking a meal (all harms that Oakland’s nondisabled renters need not endure as a condition of benefitting from the program’s protections).

Plaintiff Mitch Jeserich falls into this latter camp: “I used to live in a more accessible apartment, but I had to leave when the rent started to go up faster than I could afford. I was fortunate to find an inaccessible rent-stabilized unit that I could work with—more or less—but it’s not always easy, and I worry that I’m only one injury away from not being able to do it at all.”

Sean Betouliere, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, said, “Renters with disabilities across Oakland are harmed by the lack of accessible units covered by the city’s rent stabilization program. I worry that many have already been forced out of the City because they need to live in accessible units and, as a result, have no opportunity to access rent stabilization.”

Michael Rawson, Director of the Public Interest Law Project, said, “For many tenants, rent stabilization is the difference between having or not having a place to live in Oakland and in other communities with rent control. The blanket exclusion from Oakland’s rent stabilization program of all units built less than 36 years ago effectively denies a person needing to live in an accessible unit from protections of the program. We hope that this litigation will make Oakland’s rent control program more accessible to tenants with disabilities.”

This lawsuit comes at a dire time for Oakland renters. Average market-rate rents in Oakland have almost doubled over the past decade; in the past year alone, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment has increased by nearly 13 percent. Because they are denied the protections of Oakland’s rent stabilization program, people with disabilities who need accessible housing are especially susceptible to these skyrocketing rents.

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About Disability Rights Advocates:

With offices in California and New York, Disability Rights Advocates is one of the leading non-profit disability rights legal centers in the nation. DRA’s mission is to advance equal rights and opportunities for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. Learn more at dralegal.org.

About the Public Interest Law Project:

PILP provides essential litigation and advocacy support to local legal services and public interest law programs throughout California. We assist local legal services programs in providing free legal services to lower-income persons who are financially unable to afford legal assistance; and we provide technical assistance, training, research, and litigation support to public interest law programs and community-based organizations on law and policy issues related to housing and community development, public benefits, health, and civil rights. Learn more at pilpca.org.

Contacts

Sean Betouliere: (510) 665-8644,
sbetouliere@dralegal.org

Thomas Zito: (510) 665-8644,
tzito@dralegal.org

Michael Rawson: (510) 891-9794, ext. 145,
mrawson@pilpca.org

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