The Oakland city council ignited a virtual social media firestorm recently, when it voted to amend a standing nuisance eviction ordinance to, in part, include sex work to the list of “criminal nuisance” acts that could trigger a city-ordered “nuisance eviction”. The meme that city lawmakers now intend to target, evict and harass sex-workers spread quickly, and generated understandable anger and antipathy. But the amendment to the ordinance hides a much more disturbing agenda, marking just the latest attempt in a year-long campaign by Parker to accrue eviction powers to the City Attorney’s office.
Up until a short while ago, nuisance evictions had to originate in the Oakland city administrator’s office, who would then instruct the city attorney to pursue a suit to evict tenants with or without the consent of landlords or against landlords for refusing to evict. A recently expired state “pilot” law extended that power to the city attorney’s office on “illegal” firearms and ammunition charges—allowing Parker to jump the line from the administrator’s office and initiate the eviction suits herself. After the pilot program expired last year and a new permanent version of the law came up for a vote in the state legislature, Parker’s office lobbied hard for Oakland’s inclusion in the bill. First, she introduced a resolution to the city council that urged the state to include Oakland in the new legislation. When that seemingly failed, Parker’s office hired a lobbyist to go to the capitol and convince lawmakers to do so. This, despite the state’s caveats about growing gentrification and the reality that the city attorney would have to demonstrate in yearly reports that it pursued the law vigorously if it intended to keep that power.
The bill was signed into law on the day before the city would vote on the new expanded Nuisance Eviction Ordinance. Another state bill was signed into law at the same time which gave similar powers to the Oakland city attorney’s office on drug use and possession “nuisances”. It’s difficult to see the amendments to the NEO introduced by Parker as anything but an expansion of her eviction power grab.
The language of the city’s new ordinance is well worth reading in that light. Just as in the current version of ordinance 8.23, a nuisance eviction suit requires little, if any, evidence. Only an arrest report is necessary, even if, charges are never pursued or dropped. Though to many, the most alarming words in the language of the amended ordinance referred to sex work, the bill’s new list of suspected acts can be used to trigger eviction actions by the City Attorney for almost anyone, especially in a poor community. Pandering, for example, is little more than driving someone who is a suspected sex worker from one point to another. Equally alarming, the quite ambiguous crime of “gambling”. The bar of evidence is so low for any and all of these criminal acts that almost any routine of life in a poor community can fall within their purview. In the language of the ordinance for example, “illegal weapons” include a host of things that most people do not regard as weapons or as illegal—
blackjack, slungshot, billy, sandclub, sandbag, metal knuckles, dirk, dagger, pistol, or revolver, or any other firearm, any knife having a blade longer than five inches, any razor with an unguarded blade, and any metal pipe or bar used or intended to be used as a club.”
There are few poor people of color who are not vulnerable to arrest on one or many such charges, because of proximity, activity, OPD’s famed discriminatory policing, or simply because some or all of these things are not actually ‘illegal’ except within whatever characterization and context a police officer may write in areport.
Given all this, Parker’s backpedaling from the sex work portion of the amendment should cause more concern than it alleviates, for there are few crimes on the new list that cannot be tailored to target sex workers, or anyone else for that matter. And Parker’s response, recently posted in the SFweekly, that the ordinance was meant to target hotel managers and operators, rather than individuals, doesn’t pass the smell test. Hotel operators and managers appear only once in Parker’s report to the council about the proposed amendment’s purpose, at the end of a long list detailing the specific circumstances in which people could be accused of the acts specified in the ordinance. Clearly “persons” accused of the “crimes” are meant to be the prime targets of the ordinance:
… Currently, persons gambling, illegally possessing ammunition, participating in solicitation, pimping, pandering and prostitution and making use of their leased premises to further their illegal activities by, among other things: soliciting on the premises from contacts made offpremises, keeping illegal weapons and ammunition on the premises, making contacts on and off the premises with “Johns” and prostitutes for prostitution activity off-premises, engaging in prostitution on the premises, keeping profits on the premises from off-premises from prostitution, keeping on the premises weapons and ammunition used for off-premises illegal activities. Moreover, because this ordinance also applies to commercial properties, the City would be able to seek the eviction of a hotel lessee who is permitting prostitution on the premises.
It’s clear that the amendment has a much broader target area in mind than simply sex workers or pimps. And it’s not hard to imagine a credible and alarming situation in which the NEO is used–in rapidly gentrifying areas where new affluent neighbors with very specific ideas about “criminal nuisance” might request action from the city attorney’s office. Such complaints from a growing affluent and powerful sector of the electorate are likely to receive special care and attention from an elected official.
In short, the truly alarming factor in the amendments is that the legislation cannot be said to target sex workers or drug dealers or owners of unregistered weapons and “illegal” obtained ammunition at all. Because only an arrest report is necessary to start an NEO, the actions will target anyone who is already in the sights of law enforcement’s ubiquitous racial profiling and stop and frisk policing. The removal of the city administrator from the process—what Parker calls “streamlining”—does away with a major bureaucratic impediment to widespread use of NEO’s, putting the power squarely in the hands of an elected official with direct power to initiate an eviction. Such streamlined tools for the increased displacement of already under-fire groups should set off alarm bells all over Oakland.