Mel Ortiz has been sheltering in place in her apartment since March. Photo: Darwin BondGraham

On the evening of May 7, Mel Ortiz found a note taped to her front door by her landlord, the Mosser Company, sometime earlier in the day. The notice informed her that on May 8, between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. Mosser employees planned to enter her apartment “for the purposes of exhibiting the unit to workmen or contractors and making necessary repairs or improvements.”

Ortiz said she hasn’t asked for any repairs and doesn’t think anything in her apartment is broken. Since March 17, she has been sheltering in place in her home. Ortiz has asthma and said she is uncomfortable with contractors entering the building because they could spread COVID-19 or be exposed to it themselves. She is also worried about putting the health of other residents in her building, including seniors, at risk.

“I haven’t had friends over and now I have to let strangers come into my apartment?” said Ortiz, who added she “felt sick” when she saw the notice informing her that strangers would be trying to enter her home.

Ortiz suspects that the notice to enter her home was not just a mundane announcement about some small apartment repairs. She and others who live in Mosser Company-owned units have noted that the company seems to do an inordinate amount of construction work on various Oakland buildings, work that can be so relentless that one tenant called it “harassment.” Once the work is done, the costs can be passed on to tenants, a maneuver many believe is unfair.

The Mosser Company, which didn’t immediately respond to two phone messages and emails from Berkeleyside, touts its approach to redoing apartments. “Beautifully renovated apartments in one-of-a-kind buildings in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles,” reads the front page of the company’s website.  “We offer lovingly renovated, vintage apartments in Oakland’s most vibrant neighborhoods.”

Ortiz also wonders if her apartment has been targeted for repairs because she has not paid rent since April. She is one of about 250 Oakland tenants who have announced a rent strike against Mosser and other Oakland landlords. Mosser owns 20 buildings in Oakland, part of its $1.5 billion portfolio, according to the company’s website.

Ortiz has not paid her rent, both because she cannot afford to —  she was laid off from her job as a prep cook at a local restaurant after the pandemic began — and because she thinks rent payments should be suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many have lost their sources of income. Ortiz had been paying 75% of her income on rent, she said.

Oakland’s March eviction moratorium means Mosser Company can’t evict her, but Ortiz said she feels like the notice she got was an “intimidation tactic” for not paying rent.

Early this morning, Ortiz sent an email to her landlord: “I do not agree and do not consent to have anyone enter my unit of residence for non-emergency purposes tomorrow.”

At 10 a.m., other tenants gathered on the sidewalk outside Ortiz’s building to show support for her. They belong to a tenants union that, along with the help of the nonprofit ACCE, has formed to support other renters during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of them live in other buildings owned by the Mosser Company.

Nicole Deane, ACCE’s lead organizer, estimates that perhaps 20% of Mosser’s Oakland tenants belong to the renters union and 10% are on strike. Many of them have also complained about the company’s practices. They say that numerous disruptive construction projects have been carried out over the past several years.

Deirdre O’Shea lives in a Mosser-owned building on Harrison Street. She said the company frequently sends work crews in a “disruptive” manner and that construction seems to be nonstop. City records show Mosser Company obtained 15 building permits last year for the property, mostly for kitchen and bathroom remodels.

O’Shea said that contractors were working on a unit across the hallway from her apartment recently, after the shelter-in-place order was imposed. She said the work stopped after she complained to the company.

“It’s harassment by construction,” said Mitch Perez, another tenant who lives in a building owned by Mosser Company. Perez said Mosser has demolished and rebuilt approximately 18 units in his building over a three-year period.

Angela Shannon, another Mosser tenant Berkeleyside spoke with, said the company has filed capital improvement petitions with Oakland’s Rent Board for multiple buildings it owns. If the city grants a capital improvement petition, the landlord is allowed to pass on 70% of construction costs to tenants by increasing their rent.

A capital improvement petition is pending for Ortiz’s building, according to city records. Mosser also filed capital improvement petitions for 16 of its 20 Oakland properties in 2019, according to the Rent Adjustment Program.

Ortiz said she isn’t clear why Mosser sought access to her apartment today. No one with the company appeared by noon. But she said that nothing is wrong with her unit at the moment and she wants to remain undisturbed so that she can protect herself and others.

“I owe it to my community to be careful and I have ailing relatives I want to see.”

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Darwin BondGraham

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence...