OAKLAND, CA — City Attorney Barbara J. Parker has filed a lawsuit charging the leaders of a prominent local real estate and taxi empire with systematically violating the rights of tenants at buildings owned by their family companies.
Defendants Baljit Singh Mann and Surinder Mann are a married couple with extensive business interests in Oakland, including the Friendly Cab company and dozens of real estate holdings. Through multiple companies, the defendants own and operate numerous rental properties where tenants, including families with young children and pregnant women, have been subjected to grave risks to their health, safety and lives in flagrant violation of Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance. At least one family ended up temporarily homeless because of the landlords’ negligence.
Since at least 2016, the defendants have rented uninhabitable or dilapidated units in buildings across the city to tenants who are often low-income immigrants and speak little to no English. Defendants have profited from this predatory business model by renting unsafe units to tenants who are desperate to find affordable housing, and often are unable to take legal action to defend their rights.
“The defendants in this case are textbook predatory landlords who have profited for years from willfully violating the basic legal and human rights of tenants,” City Attorney Parker said. “In the midst of a devastating housing crisis in Oakland, the defendants have used their wealth and power not to help vulnerable families, but to exploit these tenants in a way that is both illegal and inhumane. This business model, based on systematic abuse of tenants’ rights, ends now.”
In Oakland alone, defendants own an estimated 150 properties, including vacant lots, commercial properties, single family homes, duplexes, mixed-use buildings and apartment complexes.
The lawsuit filed June 10 by the City Attorney’s Neighborhood Law Corps focuses on six properties located in East Oakland where defendants have received at least 22 notices from the City regarding serious violations. Three of those six properties were completely or partially red tagged by the City’s Code Enforcement unit.
The core of the City’s complaint is a commercial storage warehouse at 276 Hegenberger Road that the defendants converted into 18 units and rented out as living space in violation of Oakland law. Defendants also illegally rented a 500-600 square foot storage shed attached to the warehouse as living space that at least two families shared. All of these units were unsafe and unfit for human habitation.
After one tenant complained to the City, the Code Enforcement unit documented numerous serious health and safety violations including:
- Lack of safe egress.
- All units lacked smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
- No heat in units.
- No hot running water.
- Unpermitted and dangerous gas lines.
- Unpermitted and shoddy construction that led to structural problems.
- Serious fire hazards including dangerous electrical wiring and excessive use of extension cords.
- Improper venting of kitchen stoves and water heaters.
- Lack of ventilation in all units.
- Roof leaks.
- Ceilings too low for habitable spaces.
- No garbage or waste removal services.
- Infestations of cockroaches, rats and mice.
- Generally dilapidated living conditions.
Code Enforcement issued a Notice to Abate the violations in February 2018, which stated that the uninhabitable conditions at the property presented a serious threat to the lives, health, safety and welfare of the tenants and the public. The owners failed to fix many of the above problems, and eventually Code Enforcement red tagged the property in June 2018.
Not only did defendant’s misconduct create dangerous conditions for all of the tenants living at the property, it also led directly to their displacement. At least one former tenant became temporarily homeless after leaving the property.
Code Enforcement has found similar substandard and dangerous conditions – including lack of egress and other major safety hazards – at all six rental buildings that the City Attorney’s complaint addresses. And apart from violations at the buildings identified in the complaint, the City has received numerous complaints about living conditions from tenants in the defendants’ other buildings; Code Enforcement has documented at least 29 additional violations at 20 other properties owned by the defendants.
Time and again, defendants have refused to make repairs, despite complaints from tenants and notices from the City. When they do make repairs, they often do so without obtaining required permits or inspections. And when defendants have submitted permit applications, they have apparently done so only to maintain a fiction that they are planning to bring properties into compliance, and then have allowed those applications to lapse after failing to provide plans or other required information.
The recurring hazardous conditions – and the defendants’ ongoing bad faith responses to complaints from tenants and enforcement by the City – demonstrate a pattern and practice of violating Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance, which was developed by City Attorney Parker and City Councilmember Dan Kalb and adopted by the City Council in 2014 to protect Oakland tenants from this type of abhorrent behavior. The defendants’ predatory business model also represents an ongoing and severe public nuisance for tenants, neighbors and others.
The City Attorney’s lawsuit asks the court to order the defendants to immediately and permanently fix all habitability problems at their buildings, and in addition seeks fees, penalties and restitution to be determined by the court.