4:23pm

Mon March 3, 2014
Economy/Labor/Biz

Housejacked: a homeowner held hostage

Three years ago, two tenants took over Opal Palmer Adisa’s Oakland home, which she had rented to them during her academic year abroad. When she tried to move back in after the lease was up, they refused to get out or pay the rent. She shared this commentary with us back in 2011.

OPAL PALMER ADISA: We all know about slumlords, the exploitive owners of large buildings that they poorly maintain, and that are, invariably, unsafe. We've heard countless stories of tenants who have been treated badly, taken advantage of by unjust, predatory, or large corporate landlords.

Now I find myself asking: where are the counter-stories? Where are the news stories about the tenants who trash houses? Where are the stories of the small landlord who gives a family a break, then lives to regret it when the people don’t pay their rent? Where is the righteous indignation against the tenant whose failure to pay forces the landlord into foreclosure – and who then picks up the place for a song?

I've never asked myself these questions before. But, I recently returned from an academic year abroad to find my house – the place where I raised my children – essentially “housejacked” by people who refuse to either pay me or leave. So now, I've begun to wonder.

You see, I own a home in Oakland. But I leased it for a year to two tenants, while I went to fulfill a contract that took me out of state. Although the lease expired in February, and although all my furniture – over 800 books, a lifetime of collected art, clothes, and memorabilia from raising my three children are in the house – I don’t apparently have access to it, or anything therein.

These people – the tenants – have told me, to my face, that they have no intention of moving. They have told me they're going to purchase my house.

This is apparently the latest scam: a group of people rent a property, pay for a while, then stop paying. Then they wait until the house goes into foreclosure (my house is heading in that direction). Then, they turn around and purchase the property at below market value.

Although I've tried to evict the tenants on my own since February, they are still in my home and I’ve been left homeless. I had a friend paste eviction notices all over the house so they couldn't claim ignorance. I've tried reasoning with them, tried to negotiate an agreement, but to no avail.

Carjacking is a criminal offence. But in Oakland, California, housejacking, or squatting, seems to be officially sanctioned, and quite legal.

If you have the financial resources, which I don’t, you can hire a lawyer or eviction company to handle this kind of nasty business. But from my research, this could cost me anywhere from $1,200 to $10,000, depending on how hard the tenants want to fight to stay in my house. As a single mother with two children in college, I don’t right now see how my dwindling resources can allow for this.

And the final indignity: even though I haven’t gotten rent for seven months, the city still makes me liable for property taxes, and waste management still bills me for the garbage. The other utility bills that are in arrears still will reflect on my credit. The looming foreclosure will also reflect on my credit.

Let me state that, until this happened, I would have said that I was uncategorically for tenants’ rights, as I have been a tenant many and no doubt will be again. However, I'm opposed to unfair laws that would cause an owner to be displaced while exploitative tenants, clearly in violation of their contract, game the system.

Last week, we reached out to her for an update. She says after we aired her story, an organization reached out to help her pro bono and she won her house back in court. She was entitled to 10 months worth of back-pay in rent. When she returned home, she found the house was completely trashed.

And, Adisa said that by the time she reclaimed her home, her mortgage was sold to a new bank and the place was in foreclosure. So she did a short sale and Wells Fargo bought the home.

Adisa is still living in the home – and she said she plans to stay there until she gets evicted. She added that this situation cost her about $20,000 and ruined her credit.

Opal Palmer Adisa is a local writer and performer. The East Bay Rental Housing Association took up her case and is helping other homeowners facing this situation.

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