Michael Holm has lived in the same apartment in downtown Oakland for 15 years, but her daily life has deteriorated significantly after The Mosser Company purchased the Jackson Street building in 2016.
“The first thing they did was demolish all of these apartments except for the stud farms,” said Holm. In the next few years, according to Holm and other tenants, the tenants were built “for an unlimited period and without interruption”, with large work teams often blocking corridors, blowing up music and filling the property with fumes from the building materials. The city’s records indicate that Mosser issued permits for at least 14 conversions of apartments in the 24-unit building between 2016 and 2020.
“It was an absolute mess,” said Holm, who has COPD, a lung disease that causes inflamed and blocked airways. Holm said her condition was aggravated by the rubble and dust from the construction. “I was getting sick and sick.”
Holm is one of around 40 tenants who filed five lawsuits in the Alameda County Superior Court this week. They alleged Mosser and companies of Dallas-based Invesco, which purchased eight of Mossers Oakland properties in 2020, had made living conditions in rent-controlled areas inhospitable Oakland properties. Tenants are represented by attorney Robert Salinas and ACCE, a non-profit tenant representation attorney.
Lawsuits allege landlords violating Oakland lease laws by overburdening utility tenants, neglecting necessary repairs, and festering hazards such as mold and pests. The landlords are also accused of having illegally entered the tenants’ apartments, not repairing locks and elevators, not doing any permanent construction work and much more.
With many of the tenants paying well below average rents for their neighborhoods – Holm pays $ 745 a month – ACCE argues that Mosser and its subsidiaries purposely created these conditions in order to crowd out tenants. Under California law, rents can be reset to market price when a renter moves out of a rental controlled unit. Holm said the renovated units paid two or three times what Holm paid.
Tenants in this Jackson Street building say Mosser worked “non-stop” on the apartments for years. Photo credit: Amir Aziz
“You are not a person for them. They are a portfolio asset, ”said Holm speaking to The Oaklandside on the steps of the courthouse by René C. Davidson on Wednesday morning after a press conference organized by ACCE.
Mosser failed to respond to multiple calls and emails from The Oaklandside on Wednesday. According to the company’s website, Mosser currently owns 12 properties in Oakland, as well as buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mosser sold eight more buildings in Oakland to real estate investor Invesco at the end of 2020 in order to make potential buyers aware of the possibility of “enormous future income growth” on the properties due to the “natural rollover” of the leases.
A spokesman for Oak9, an Invesco affiliate that has been featured in some litigation, sent a statement in response to The Oaklandside’s request for comment.
“We receive the complaints and examine them. While we cannot comment directly on active legal disputes, we take the health, safety and comfort of our tenants very seriously, ”said spokeswoman Tracy Craig.
Another tenant present at the court assembly, Said Koulougli, described the stress his disabled wife experienced after Mosser bought her building on E. 18th Street. Koulougli’s wife has limited mobility and drives around Oakland on an electric scooter that she leaves in the building’s garage in a parking lot that she borrows from a neighbor.
According to one of the lawsuits, Mosser once warned tenants that all of the garbage would be removed from the garage. During the cleanup, the company vandalized the parked scooter as well as the hikers left in the same place. When Koulougli contacted a manager to say that his wife’s mobility devices were missing, he received an email that read, “Hello, I’m sorry, but the trash left in the garage was thrown in dumpsters. Kind regards, “says the lawsuit. The couple had to buy a new scooter, but Koulougli’s wife has since missed a medical appointment, he said. The elevator in the building is often broken too, he said.
According to the lawsuit, Mosser also failed to replace broken mailboxes in the same building for months, forcing tenants to collect mail from the post office in downtown Oakland until the postal service threatened to no longer hold it for them.
Pretty new Oakland law brings tenants to court
One of the lawsuits is a class action lawsuit alleging Mosser and Invesco illegally charged tenants for utility companies.
Oakland’s Rent Control Regulations do not allow a landlord to split a building’s utility bill across units. The landlord has to install individual meters so that the tenants can only pay for the water and electricity that their household – not that of their neighbors – uses each month. “If this is too expensive,” the regulations say, “the owner should pay the electricity bill himself and build the cost into the rent.”
Rather than following this law, lawyers claim Mosser and its affiliates used third party companies to illegally apportion the cost of collecting water, sewage and garbage to tenants in buildings without individual meters. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that these companies use a formula that shares utility costs unevenly and “irregularly” and inexplicably bills some tenants more than others who live in similar units. These companies also charge “service fees” to tenants.
Razika Tougaua, Hamar Lemya and Zakiaha Choud (left to right) all immigrated to the US from Algeria and met in the same building on E. 18th Street. Now they speak out against what they say that the landlord Mosser has repeatedly neglected it. Photo credit: Natalie Orenstein
In some cases, Mosser installed individual electricity meters so tenants – who did not have to pay for utilities under their agreements with their previous landlord – had to set up PG&E accounts and start paying their bills. ACCE lawyers say this is an illegal rent increase and switch to a lease. If tenants did not open a PG&E account, the landlord sent threatening letters, according to the lawsuit.
Hamar Lemya, a tenant on E. 18th Street, told The Oaklandside that she came home one day from collecting her newborn’s birth certificate to find that her electricity was off. Lemya and two other tenants in her building also said their water was turned off hours before the courthouse press conference appeared.
“We don’t have a choice, that’s why we’re staying there,” said tenant Razika Tougaua, who also lives on E. 18th Street. “We are all low-income.”
The five lawsuits ask rental companies to cease and pay damages to any practice that violates Oakland’s Rental Control Rules and Tenant Protection Ordinance. The TPO, passed in 2014 and updated last year, gives Oakland tenants the ability to bring their landlords to court for harassment.
“The TPO is a wonderful law, but it needs to be enforced,” said Ethan Silverstein, ACCE attorney. The ordinance allows tenants to receive $ 1,000 per day for each violation, and “we intend to take advantage of this as much as possible,” Silverstein said.