A few months ago, Karina Ioffee, a no-nonsense journalist-turned-activist, had the misfortune to run up against the California Apartment Association. The CAA, one of the most powerful landlord lobbying groups in the state, is known to smackdown anyone who tries to protect renters from unfair evictions and outrageous rent hikes.
“They send people into any locality when they get a whiff of rent control,” Ioffee told me. “They’re an organization that has massive resources. They’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Ioffee and I sat at a table in a cafe on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, a working-class neighborhood about four miles north of Berkeley. She is 40 years old, a mother, and founding member of the Alliance for Secure Housing, an off-shoot of the social justice group El Cerrito Progressives. She was born in Riga, Latvia, and moved to California with her family in 1989. She can speak fluent Russian, English, and Spanish. For 15 years, she worked as a reporter for local newspapers. Recently, she made the switch to activism.
“I got tired of being a fly on the wall, an observer,” Ioffee explained. “I wanted to be a social justice advocate and warrior.”
She has a strong sense of what’s fair and unfair, and feels a somewhat unexplainable urge to help people.
“My partner calls it the ‘Mother Teresa complex,’” Ioffee said with a laugh. “I just see, if you look, that there’s so much inequity.”
She added, “I was bullied as a kid. Big time. So was my sister. I defended her, and we got into a few fights over that… It just like to stand up for people who can’t defend themselves.”
For her day job, Ioffee works for a non-profit that protects immigrants in Contra Costa County, including rapid legal assistance and fighting deportations. During her off-hours, she battles for housing justice in El Cerrito, where she lives.
“As a constituency,” Ioffee said, “tenants are at the whims of the landlords. El Cerrito doesn’t have any renter protections at all.”
Like much of the Bay Area, rents in El Cerrito have increased rapidly over the years — and there’s no sign that’s going to stop.
“Housing is the number one issue facing the Bay Area,” said Ioffee, “facing the state. People are paying a huge part of their paychecks on rent, and you can’t save for anything else.”
In El Cerrito, seniors on fixed incomes and working-class residents are getting slammed by unfair, excessive rents.
“We have senior citizens tell us that if this keeps up, they’ll have to move out of state, where they don’t know anyone.”
But just as sky-high rents are all too common in California cities, so is the lack of political will by elected leaders to do anything about it. Whether it’s Sacramento, San Diego, or El Cerrito.
“The sentiment one gets when going to a City Council meeting,” said Ioffee, “is that they’re completely out of touch with what renters are going through.”
So earlier this year, Ioffee and her fellow activists pushed for a number of tenant protections, including just cause eviction — a landlord must have a reason to kick someone out of his or her home. By May, the El Cerrito City Council approved a watered-down version of what housing activists wanted. It only applied to around 15 percent of the city’s rental units, Ioffee said, but it was something.
The California Apartment Association, though, believed even that was too much, and started a signature drive to repeal it.
“They engaged in a total misinformation campaign.”
Ioffee said that signature gatherers misleadingly told residents that they should sign the petition if they wanted rent control. Others said that if residents didn’t want criminals to move into El Cerrito, they should give their signatures. The CAA is known for such underhanded tactics.
Last year, in Mountain View, the landlord lobbying group tried to repeal renter protections through a ballot measure, but failed to get enough signatures. Mayor Lenny Siegel said in a strongly worded statement: “Mountain View voters were not fooled by the apartment owners’ deceptive campaign to place the sneaky repeal on the ballot.”
El Cerrito residents, however, weren’t experienced in the tricky ways of the California Apartment Association. The lobbying powerhouse got the signatures it needed, forcing the City Council’s hand. The politicians folded, and repealed their own watered-down protections in August. Ioffee witnessed the vote at City Hall.
“It was another example of CAA’s power,” she said. “It was a joke. At that moment, it became clear to me that getting anything through the City Council was going to be next to impossible.”
Ioffee added, “Our group is not anti-landlord. It’s anti-rent gouging. We want fairness for tenants.”
Ioffee and the Alliance for Secure Housing are now undertaking a citywide education campaign to better inform residents about tenant protections, with the possibility of trying to place a rent control initiative on the local ballot.
“We just need a little more empathy in California,” said Ioffee. “We’d live in a much better place.”