A crowd of over 50 people, including residents living in an 18-floor apartment complex on 1130 3rd Avenue, and their supporters, rallied on Tuesday, August 30, outside the complex to announce a rent strike. Tenants say residents in at least 42 apartments, which make up about 25 percent of the complex’s 165 occupied units, are withholding rent starting on September 1 to pressure management and ownership to effectively address their habitability and safety concerns.
“Rent keeps going up, but guess what keeps going lower?” said Monsieur ‘Monty’ Joyce, a middle school teacher who’s lived in the complex for five years and is withholding rent, during a speech at the rally. “The services and the support.”
According to Alexandra “Ali” Uro-May, who’s lived in the complex for about three and a half years, tenants formed The Merritt on 3rd Tenant Council to address onsite conditions and a lack of effective responses from FPI Management, the company who, until recently, was the property manager.
“Mice are in the units and rats are in the vents and running around the halls,” Uro-May said during an interview with this reporter. “I have PTSD from the mouse situation.”
During the rally, tenants and supporters chanted “evict the rats!”
Emails Uro-May shared with this reporter show that she first contacted FPI Management about a mouse infestation in her and her partner’s apartment last December, and that FPI didn’t effectively address the situation until May. In June, Alameda County Vector Control released a report confirming “evidence of rodent activity” at the complex.
Uro-May is not alone in her complaints. Joyce said when he requested mold remediation from FPI, the company “just sent someone to paint over it.” City of Oakland complaint enforcement records show that since May 31, tenants in the complex filed over a dozen complaints with the city relating to black mold, backed up sewage, broken down elevators, blocked trash chutes, not receiving hot water throughout the entire complex for six days, and electrical issues. The records list two of the mold complaints, one dating back to mid-June, as “not abated.”
After this reporter emailed FPI Regional Portfolio Manager Emily Dare to ask her to address the habitability and safety concerns, she emailed a response on August 26 stating “FPI has no comment and is no longer the managing agent for an apartment tower at 1130 3rd Ave.”
On August 23, the complex’s former owner, Kennedy Wilson, a company which has 23 billion dollars of real estate holdings throughout the USA and Europe according to its website, sold the site to FPA Multifamily, a company worth over 20 billion dollars. Kennedy Wilson had bought the complex in 2011 for $31 million and sold it for $55.5 million. As ownership changed, so did management. FPI Management, who was originally under contract with Kennedy Wilson, stepped down and Trinity Property Consultants took over as property manager. No one from Kennedy Wilson, FPA Multifamily, or Trinity responded to multiple emails, phone calls, and voicemail messages this reporter left over multiple days seeking comment for this article.
“Tenants are living in an emergency…the rent strike brings that emergency to the landlord and the management”
Uro-May feels her experience at the complex hasn’t been living up to expectations she had when she first moved in. She says amenities like pool and fitness center usage were not available to residents for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and tenants received no rent reductions during this time. While the complex no longer has a functioning website that advertises to the public, archived site records show that in October 2020, the site advertised pool and gym amenities when they weren’t available. At least as late as March 31, the site advertised the complex as offering “luxury living.” “I pay 3400 hundred to live in that building,” said Uro-May. “For what? I thought I was moving into a building with nice amenities but it’s been a disaster.”
Uro-May describes an event on June 5 as “the culmination” that brought tenants together. On that date, both elevators shut down for more than a day, trapping elderly and/or disabled residents.
“My neighbor had to call her son to carry her up 14 flights of stairs,” said Uro-May. “That was a big deal. There wasn’t as much community in the building before that date.”
Soon after the elevator incident, residents report their hot water was not available for about a week. It was during this time that some residents, including Uro-May and Joyce, began organizing by putting signs up in the elevators, laundry room, and lobby asking people to attend an in-person tenant meeting. Uro- May and Joyce both say over 100 people showed up to that first meeting on June 9, and that the crowd was diverse in terms of age and race.
“It felt like we weren’t alone and I was honestly a little surprised,” said Joyce of the first meeting. “To have a significant amount of people show up, it led us to know we were on the right track.”
One of the council’s first actions occurred on July 10, when they sent a detailed six-page letter to Kennedy Wilson and FPI announcing their council and demands related to habitability, security, and lowered rent for any tenant paying over the market rate for the area. Exactly 100 tenants signed the letter.
In late July, FPI responded to the letter by rejecting some demands, such as rent reductions, denying knowledge of the existence of some problems tenants complained of, such as mold, and saying they would work with tenants on other issues, such as safety precautions to prevent package thefts. While FPI stated they would meet with tenants, tenants say that never happened. Around this time, and for about a year beforehand, Uro-May and Joyce said they had been hearing rumors the building would be sold. They suspected the companies were being negligent and stalling any meetings due to the sale.
“We were feeling like just because they were selling the building didn’t mean they could leave us high and dry,” Uro-May said.
Soon after the meeting, residents formed The Merritt on 3rd Tenant Council. Since then, Uro-May says tenants have been meeting weekly.
Joyce says the council has taken inspiration from the Alice and Ivy Hill Tenants unions, who are also based in Oakland and had organized a 13-month rent strike that ended in their landlords offering partial rent cancellation and rent reduction concessions.
“Seeing Alice and Ivy Hill’s victory inspired us to do the same thing,” said Joyce.
Members of the Alice and Ivy Hill Unions showed up at the rally to show their support.
Like Alice and Ivy Hill, The Merritt on 3rd Tenant Council has also been collaborating with Bay Area Tenants and Neighborhood Councils, also known as Bay Area TANC, a tenant union with over 500 members that works to support tenant organizing efforts in the Bay Area. E. Conner, an organizer with Bay Area TANC, also spoke at the rally to show her support.
“Tenants are living in an emergency,” Conner said. “The rent strike brings that emergency to the landlord and the management.”
By August, about a half dozen tenants, including Joyce, started making banners to support the tenant council and to help build momentum for a possible rent strike. They displayed them out of their apartment windows. An email sent to this reporter from FPI to two tenants, dated August 22, the day before the building was sold, stated “Banners are not allowed to be hung from the exterior of the building — this is a city code violation and a safety hazard.”
While Oakland City Code 5.06.020 prevents hanging banners on public property, it allows an “occupant” of private property to hang banners on their premises.
“My banner is still up,” said Joyce, whose banner reads “NO SERVICES NO RENT.” Another banner that reads “DON’T PAY RENT” was hanging from an apartment window and visible on the day of the rally.
On August 28, The Merritt on 3rd Tenant Council sent Trinity Property Consultants, the complexes’ new property manager, a letter informing them of their tenant council and announcing the rent strike. The letter reiterated their previous demands, which they said had been ignored, along with requests to negotiate with Trinity on three different dates in September. The tenants have heard no response from the company. They also complained that no one from Trinity answered the phone over the weekend when they called due to immediate concerns about the building.
Trinity left a note on tenants’ doors shortly after becoming the new property manager that announced upgrades to the pool, laundry room, elevators, and fitness space. Uro-May feels the letter did not address most of the tenants’ concerns.
“I wish they would fix the important things and not just put lipstick on a pig,” said Uro-May. “We need the mice and rats gone and we need more safety.”
Tenants say they will continue to withhold rent until they can strike a deal with the landlords. With Oakland and Alameda County’s eviction moratoriums in place, the tenants can’t currently be evicted for non-payment of rent.
“With the rent strike we hope to reduce the landlords’ profits until they meet our demands,” Uro-May said. “We’re shifting the balance of power between tenants and landlords to our favor.”
Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.