RENT STRIKE IN OAKLAND IN THE COVID TIMES - PHOTOESSAY
Photos by David Bacon
Capital & Main, 7/20/20
OAKLAND, CA 7/9/20 - Tenants and supporters demonstrated at an Oakland apartment complex where tenants are mounting a rent strike against Mosser Capital, one of several apartment complexes where rent strikes are taking place. During the COVID-19 crisis the landlord is insisting on bringing investors to inspect the apartments despite the danger of contagion. Mosser bought over 20 buildings in Oakland in 2016, according to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). Mosser received a Paycheck Protection Program loan between $2 million and $5 million during the pandemic.
The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment organized tenants from buildings across Oakland to come to the apartment house, to confront speculators brought by Mosser Capital, the building's owners. Tenants, especially seniors, expressed fear that letting strangers into their homes during the pandemic would put them at risk for contamination from the coronavirus. They also believed that the investor tour might result in evictions and rent hikes.
Sharena Diamond Thomas and Sabeena Shah stand at the front of a group of renters determined not to let speculators into the apartment complex.
Sabeena Shah is the leader of the rent strike in the building, and the big "Rent Strike" sign is in the window of her apartment. She has been living there for 8 years, and pays $1300 a month in rent. She worked as a special education teacher in Contra Costa County, and has been out of work since the pandemic started. "Teachers and students are all affected by this crisis," she said. "I started the strike in solidarity with the other tenants here, because I know that they can't afford to pay more, and have no where to go if they're evicted."
Sabeena Shah stands in the doorway to her apartment. Mosser Capital tried to raise the rent on her apartment, and that of other tenants, claiming it needed to pay for capital improvements. No improvements were made to the apartments of existing tenants, however. "They charged us for a new water heater, but never installed it," she charges. The strike and support from ACCE seeks to force Mosser to withdraw the increases.
Sharena Diamond Thomas is a renter in another building, where tenants have been on strike since April. She had a small catering business, and after the pandemic started she couldn't serve food in the community anymore. "I have a family, and it would put my own kids in danger, and others too. Now I can't afford the rent, and I have to choose between that and feeding my own family. My landlord lives in LA, and when I try to talk to her about the pandemic she acts like I'm speaking a foreign language."
Pedro Viramontes and Andrea Bonilla moved in May into one of the apartments that had been renovated, and pay $2500 a month. Viramontes workes at the East Bay Community Law Office, and Bonilla is a tech worker. When they found out about the rent strike they supported it immediately.
Rent strikers and supporters from buildings throughout Oakland wait for the arrival of the investor tour organized by the struck landlord, Mosser Capital.
"Our Black seniors are suffering all over Oakland," says Sharena Diamond Thomas. The largest percentage of tenants are Black, and high rents are terrifying to them. They can't rest, they're stressed out, they can't move during the pandemic, and all of this makes them vulnerable to the virus."
Carroll Fife, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, spoke to the group of rent strikers and tenants. "If you can charge the highest price for an item that people actually need to live and thrive, we're always going to have an issue here," she told them. "And it hits Black and brown folks the most."
Tenants accused Mosser Capital of violating Alameda County public health orders that restrict real estate tours and endanger tenants. The county is a COVID-19 hotspot, and as of July 16 had 8,499 cases, and 154 deaths. Infection and death is a danger especially to older people, and most of the tenants in the 34 units of the apartment house are seniors.
The Brass Liberation Orchestra, a Bay Area radical musicians collective, showed up to play and urge tenants to sing, to life the morale of strikers.
"Seniors deserve a secure life and retirement," Sharena Diamond Thomas said as supporters wearing masks looked on. "They shouldn't have to worry about the rent going up. Housing is a human right. Yet Black people are facing a wave of evictions in Oakland, which is as serious a problem for our community as terror from the police."
A striker, with mask on, looks on from her balcony as other tenants below get ready to confront the landlord and the investor group.
The apartment house was eerily quiet after the rally, when it became evident that Mosser Capital had cancelled its plan to bring investors to enter and inspect the apartments. Tenants called it a victory, but warned that Mosser would simply schedule it for another day, and asked people to be ready to return on a moment's notice.
Editor's Note: Few of the economic crises spawned by the pandemic are likely to prove more devastating than the one new enveloping California's renters. Already battered by skyrocketing rents and pressured by gentrification, middle- and low-income tenants are increasingly facing a world without paychecks - and without government assistance, as eviction moratoriums begin to expire and supplemental unemployment benefits run out. A report by the Aspen Institute predicts an eviction "tsunami" by the end of September.
Photojournalist David Bacon's images here capture the resistance of one group of Oakland tenants, as they launch a rent strike to challenge the right of their apartment comlex's owner, Mosser Capital, to allow investors into their homes to inspect the units. (This, when the coronavirus is resurging.) When asked by KPIX-TV why it felt the need to send investors into the Oakland comlex in the middle of a pandemic, Mosser Capital issued a statement that read, in part: "Building and apartment inspections are necessary to maintain properties, comply with local laws, and for insurance purposes."
To see the full set of images, click here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/56646659@N05/albums/72157715176535683