Oakland sues landlord for illegal rent increase

Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said Tuesday that she and Centro Legal de la Raza have filed suit against a landlord who they allege attempted to illegally increase his tenant’s rent by pretending he had moved into the downstairs unit of a duplex.

Parker said such schemes have become common as Oakland’s housing crisis persists, with some landlords using sham “owner move-ins” as a tactic to evade Oakland’s just cause for eviction and rent control laws.

Parker said that in the case that the subject of the lawsuit, landlord Rong Fu Lee, allegedly concocted a scheme to nearly triple the rent for tenant Salvador Sotelo in his rent-controlled duplex in the 300 block of Center Street near the West Oakland BART station.

Parker said that under Oakland law, an owner and certain family members may be entitled to evict a tenant or significantly increase a tenant’s rent by moving into the owner’s property.

She said that some landlords are violating the law by claiming they will move in, or by moving into the property for a brief period, in order to evict tenants or increase rents by exorbitant amounts.

Parker said in a statement:

“As Oakland continues to struggle with its historic housing crisis, we are committed to stopping landlords who engage in deceit or coercion to unlawfully raise rents or evict tenants … We are suing unscrupulous landlords because every family that pays rent in Oakland is entitled to decent housing free from harassment and exploitation.”

Sotelo and his family have lived in the Center Street duplex that Lee owns since 2003, according to Parker.

The suit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court last Friday, alleges that in 2016 Lee claimed he had been living in the downstairs unit of the duplex for a year and that the property therefore was exempt from rent control.

But Parker alleges that utility bills show months with zero water usage in the unit during that time period and neighbors testified that Lee visited the property only infrequently.

She alleges Lee’s father was even videotaped bringing trash to the property from elsewhere, apparently to make it look like the downstairs unit was occupied.

Centro Legal Equal Justice Works Fellow Micaela Alvarez said:

“The landlord’s conduct in this case caused an immense amount of stress and anxiety for Mr. Sotelo and his family … We hope this case demonstrates that landlords will be held accountable for harassment and fraudulent owner move-ins and occupancies.”

Parker alleges Sotelo previously filed a rent adjustment program petition challenging the rent increase and last October a hearing officer found the increase was invalid because Lee had not occupied the unit as his primary residence for the requisite time period.

Parker said Sotelo also filed a petition against Lee in 2014 for illegal rent increases and habitability violations, alleging that his family had to lock their door with a two-by-four because the doorjamb was severely rotted and the deadbolt was loose, the toilet was broken, and the unit had water damage including mold.

Parker alleges a hearing officer ordered Lee to reduce the rent based on the habitability issues but many of those issues still continue.

Parker said the city is suing Lee for alleged violations of the city’s tenant protection and just cause laws and Centro Legal is suing on behalf of Sotelo.

She said the suit asks the court to order Lee to immediately make repairs, refrain from making verbal or written threats against the Sotelo family, and pay penalties and attorney’s fees.

Lee and his attorney couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.