Category Archives: Oakland

Owens v. City of Oakland: Court of Appeals Fleshes Out Meaning of “Dwelling or Unit” under State Law

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“When the owner of a single-family home rents bedrooms in the home to separate tenants, does the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act exempt each of the tenants’ rooms from local rent control because the home is considered an exempt dwelling under the Act? Jonathan Owens rented out bedrooms in his home to three unrelated individuals. He contends the City of Oakland’s Housing, Residential Rent and Relocation Board (the Rent Board) and the trial court erred when they determined the rented rooms are subject to Oakland’s rent control ordinance. We agree with the Rent Board and the court and affirm the trial court order denying Owens’s petition for writ of mandamus.”

Landlord Jonathan Owens owns a single-family home in Oakland. He lives in the home and rents three individual bedrooms to three unrelated tenants. One tenant filed a petition at the Oakland rent board “alleging her housing became unsuitable due to disruptive construction work and hazardous conditions on the premises [and that] Owens failed to provide required notice of the Rent Adjustment Program and retaliated against her by terminating her lease when she complained about the construction work and sought a reduction in rent.”

Owens responded that her tenancy was exempt from the jurisdiction of the rent board because the entire property was “alienable, separate from the title of any other dwelling unit” – a status that would exempt the property from local rent controls under Costa-Hawkins.

What happened next was procedurally bizarre. The hearing officer dismissed the petition on a finding that the tenant was in arrears on rent without justification. However, for some reason, the hearing officer made a gratuitous finding that the tenancy was not exempt because the rental of individual rooms meant that no dwelling was “separately alienable”.

Owens appealed to the rent board commission – presumably to avoid any collateral estoppel effect of this determination and renewed his argument for exemption under Costa-Hawkins/ The rent board unanimously affirmed the decision. Owens then petitioned for writ of mandate in the superior court, and the court affirmed as well, on the narrow issue of Costa-Hawkins preemption. The First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

The decision is problematic for several reasons. First, the broad scope of the petition related to many things having nothing to do with rent adjustments. As a result of the judicial powers doctrine, the rent board likely lacked the jurisdiction to render any relief. To render such a determination on a dismissed petition compounded the overreach. Finally, to the extent that most of this was about eviction controls (which Costa-Hawkins does not regulate), it is puzzling that Owens did not raise the argument that Section 8.22.350E of the Oakland Municipal Code exempts owner-occupied homes from eviction controls, if the owner shares “kitchen or bath facilities” with the tenants. While the opinion does not discuss whether Owens shares such facilities, it can almost be assumed from the description “single family home” that he and all the tenants shared the same half-and-half carton when making their coffees.

The rule of law is also somewhat hollow. The purpose of eviction controls is to prevent landlords from circumventing rent controls by the expediency of terminating the existing tenancy and raising rates on a new one. A finding that this is a multi-dwelling property for rent control purposes has little effect if Owens can capriciously terminate tenancies whenever he wants to increase the rents. Further, from a policy perspective, it is inconsistent that the institutional landlord of a single-family home can escape rent control, but a mom-and-pop owner-occupying landlord cannot. Nonetheless, Owens is a warning that landlords should be particularly cautious in renting multiple rooms under different leases.

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