Jim Norrena

Oakland, California
April 28th, 2016|

Living the Artist’s Life: How Oakland Failed Me 

In 1993 I was 23 years old, working as an editorial assistant earning $13 an hour for a book publisher in Berkeley. I was inspired by the Bay Area’s thriving publishing scene, motivated by the arts community, and eager to build a comfortable life near my family. My apartment, a ground-floor in-law in a duplex, was admittedly was a steal at $550 a month.  This had the added benefit of affording me rent control protection because in Oakland properties with three units or fewer in which the owner does not reside are protected.  

About eight years later the owner sold the building. This was around the time Oakland enacted “just cause” eviction protection, meaning tenants only can be evicted according to specific criteria. It was the first in a series of unpredictable turns that highlights Oakland’s “black hole” rental laws, giving property owners unrestricted financial empowerment over a tenant. The new owner notified the tenants that an owner-move-in eviction notice was pending, though it was not stated which unit. I had just been laid off from my publishing job, and the post-9/11 Bay Area market was tanking. Neither able to afford a move, nor find full-time employment, I decided to be “proactive.” I negotiated a one-year lease, but only after the new owner raised the rent 40 percent to $850.

The new owner evicted a different tenant, and I was “safe”, though the owner’s subsequent move-in rendered void my rent control protection. Interestingly, the new landlord forewent imposing annual rent increases. Most property owners take advantage of their legal right to raise rents according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is typically less than 3 percent. However, failing to raise the rent doesn’t mean lost income; owners can retroactively “bank” up to 10 percent each year to regain this “lost” income.) I learned about this when the first owner tried to impose an illegal rent increase of 24 percent (3 percent times 8 years) weeks before he put the property on the market. I fought it and won.

But then in 2014, after 21 years renting my apartment, the owner, hoping to maximize on the return of his investment issued a 60-day eviction notice. He didn’t have the patience to reclaim his banked income, which could have been accomplished in four consecutive years of increasing the rent by 10 percent, the legal maximum. In four years he would have increased the rent by $340, bringing the monthly rent to $1190. But his thinking, and legal right, was to bypass such minimal adjustments and go for gold: fast eviction, followed by an immediate return of the unit to market rate (average monthly rent for a one-bedroom in 2014 was approximately $1,514). So for a price differential of $324, I was tossed to the curb despite a flawless rental history.

I even tried to change his mind by agreeing to pay a new rent at market rate – just to stay — but he “wouldn’t feel comfortable increasing the rent so much without remodeling the unit.” So we agreed he would remodel the unit and give me first right of refusal when he put it back on the market. Two months later he offered the unit to me for $1,500 a month, but that he hadn’t done all the work we’d discussed. In fact, short of removing 20-year-old carpeting and swapping the tub for a stall, nothing else was done. So I the choice was to pay upward of $1,000 to move back into the apartment, which then cost almost twice as much as I’d been paying, not have the promised amenities and improvements to justify the rent increase, and still have no rent control; or I could stay in a nearby $1,695 rent-controlled Glenview apartment.

It was a painful decision, because it was a no-win situation. I couldn’t afford either option. So I went with the lesser of two evils and denied my previous landlord the ability ever again to inflict his greed upon me.

I’m disappointed in his decision-making skills, but I’m not angry with him. He used Oakland’s current housing laws to position himself better in an absurd market. It’s the laws that need to be addressed.

Today I’m making ends meet with freelance photography 3-4 nights a week (if I can get them), regardless of rate. For two years now I’ve been balancing both a full-time job and a demanding freelance work schedule. I’m still living in boxes because I keep hoping I’ll find a more affordable solution. I’m 47 years old. I’m single. I live in a one-bedroom apartment that requires I work a minimum 60-hour week.

Leave my low-paying, nonprofit arts job for the higher echelon of tech-industry employment? Let’s face it; I’m about twice the average age of your typical lunchroom employee at Google, Twitter, IDEO, Facebook, etc. Besides, I love my current job working at an arts college. I don’t want to have to leave a job I love to work at a place I resent simply because it’s the only way to afford an apartment that isn’t worth what it costs. 

I want a realistically priced place to live that allows me to enjoy both my work and personal life equally.  

That used to be the Bay Area. I know, because I’ve been living here for almost half a century. 

Oakland is where I live, but it’s no longer my home.