Stressed Tenants Attorney Supports Yes on 21 for Systemic Change

Karen Ocamb News

“I can’t take it anymore,” says Phil Rapier, a tenants attorney in Oakland, California. “In the last few years, I’ve had more and more calls from seniors who are being evicted. After 25 years of defending tenants in eviction cases, I’ve just gotten to the point where I can’t stand it because I have people calling me like the lady who was almost 90. She lived in her apartment for 44 years. Overseas investors bought the property and immediately tried to evict her. Why? Not because she didn’t pay her rent but because they said she was hanging her laundry on the balcony and because she was feeding stray cats. Of course, they didn’t say it’s because her rent was $600 lower than everybody else’s in the building.”

Though he’s near despair, Rapier still has hope. “That’s why I like Prop 21. We can change the system. But it’s going to be very difficult because [the opposition] is spending at least $50-70 million to defeat it.”

Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. That’s why Reps. Maxine Waters, Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, the California Democratic Party, the ACLU, the California Nurses Association, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, Black Lives Matter, the Los Angeles Times, and a slew of LGBTQ organizations and individuals — including LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin and LA Unified School Board member Jackie Goldberg — have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.

Most of the people calling Rapier now are ages 85 to 91, panicked at being evicted from their home of 50 years. Each case, like the almost 90-year old woman, twists his emotions and takes a toll on his soul.

“She can’t live on the street — a medical situation or physical condition or financial condition doesn’t allow for that,” Rapier, 63, says of his elderly client. “I feel that I can’t lose the case. I can’t afford to make a mistake because, for a lady who doesn’t have anywhere to go, that could be a death sentence. This is not the way that we should treat each other. We should not treat the most precious amongst us, which is the elders, in this terrible and solely profit driven way.”

Rapier is spot on. A surge in homicides and killings of homeless people in L.A. in 2020 “is approaching a benchmark of violence not seen in a decade,” according to the Los Angeles Times.  “Homeless individuals are particularly susceptible to street violence, and L.A. has more than 35,000 people estimated to be living on the street. Last year, nearly 3,600 people experiencing homelessness were reported to be victims of violence or property crimes, while more than 5,700 were either arrested or suspected in such crimes, according to LAPD data.”

“We have to take care of our seniors. Other societies do,” says Rapier. “It’s not that we can’t do it. We’ve been trained to think there’s nothing we can do: ‘It’s the real estate market. It’s the way it is.’ No, it’s not. We can change it.”

First people must understand that “the way things are now for tenants — the housing market, the rental market — is completely not working,” he says. “People are not supposed to pay more than 30% of their income on rent. And you’ve got lots of people in California paying 40% to 70% of their income on rent. That’s called rent overburdened… So this is showing us that the rental market is broken and that people are just getting smashed. We’ve got to look for systemic change. That’s why we need Prop 21. Prop 21 is a step towards systemic change.”

Rapier sees “a close parallel” between how people respond to systemic racism and systemic problems with rent.

“When you talk about police brutality and police killings, people that don’t want to see systemic change say, ‘Oh, well, it’s just some bad cops. We just need to get rid of them and that’ll address the problem.’ But people who are looking at a larger picture see that it’s not individual police that are the problem — it’s the system that’s the problem,” Rapier says. “We have the highest degree of inequality in the United States than any industrialized nation. We have the biggest gap between working people and the wealthy than any industrialized nation. And so, what that means is that the police are enforcing rules of extreme inequality.”

Here’s the parallel. “We tend to think that rental problems are due to greedy landlords, because that’s our lived experience,” he says. “But that’s just a function of the system, the way the system operates, because it’s totally profit-driven. The problem is not greed. The landlord is just as much of the problem as the bad police.”

Systemic change means dealing with the inequities in the economic system so it doesn’t matter if the landlord is good or bad, they must abide by the law.  

But to get there, people must shake their training that a person’s economic fate is driven by capitalism and “that’s the way things are.”

“We’ve been taught that,” Rapier says. “And so to me, the real struggle is not with any particular law or any particular policy. The real struggle is under the surface — this idea that you go to school, you play by the rules, you work hard and then, as a reward, you get housing. But the unfortunate flip side of that belief is that if people don’t have housing, they must have not gone to school or worked hard or followed the rules. It’s unstated, but there’s this belief that they don’t housing.”

And that’s the fundamental idea that needs to change.

“We need to shift from this kind of competitive distribution, evolving into the understanding that housing is something that people should have — whether you’re a dishwasher or corporate titan. Or an artist like me. I have a band. I should be able to have housing, even if I’m a musician and make very little money. And so the idea that people that don’t have housing somehow failed and don’t deserve that housing is a fundamental bottom where the change needs to occur — not just amongst legislators, but amongst us as ‘We, the people.’”

Rapier also wants to shake the Trumpian definition of winners and losers.

“If people can’t hold a job or don’t have a job or don’t have any money or have problems, they’re not losers. They’re human beings. And human beings should not be living in the street in a rich country. Stop looking at yourself as a winner and these people as losers, because that’s not what it is. But as long as we have that kind of competitive ideology, that competitive way of thinking, it’s very hard to change because it’s sort of like driving with the brakes on,” he says.

“We need to find a way to allow people to see that we can change things,” Rapier says. “Prop 21 is exactly that type of thing.”

Photo: Phil Rapier with Prop 21 endorser Danny Glover, and Rapier’s girlfriend bandmate, Blooma at a Bernie Sanders rally in Richmond, CA on 2/17/20