The fate of 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Musiy Rishin, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, is hanging on an Alameda City Council meeting scheduled for Sept. 3.
That’s when the council will decide whether to keep or get rid of a rule that allows Rishin’s out-of-state landlord to evict him from the apartment he’s lived in for 17 years.
“This is the first really negative thing he ever encountered in this country, and he cannot believe that this is happening to him,” said daughter Svetlana Rishin.
Rishin rents through the housing voucher program known as Section 8, under which the federal government pays the bulk of the rent directly to landlords as a way to help low income elderly and disabled people.
In the city of Alameda, there are rules against landlords pushing out regular tenants just to raise the rent to market rate. However, the city is one of only a few places in California that has an exemption that allows Section 8 tenants to be evicted without cause, said Sarah McCracken, a staff attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, who is representing Rishin.
“This is an extremely rare and unusual exemption, and it causes this kind of abuse,” she said.
But Alameda is considering making a change. On Sept. 3 the city council will vote on whether to protect Section 8 tenants from “no cause” evictions.
A “just cause” eviction means that a landlord can remove a tenant who, for example, didn’t pay the rent, or if the landlords want to move in themselves. “No cause” eviction refers to a situation where the tenant hasn’t done anything wrong, for example if an owner wants the tenant to leave because he or she wants to charge higher rent.
In May, Alameda voted to ban “no cause” evictions, except for Section 8 tenants like Rishin.
“What this case demonstrates is that Section 8 voucher holders are actually more at risk,” McCracken said.
The eviction would be particularly traumatizing, Svetlana Rishin said, because of her father’s history. Musiy Rishin was nine years old in 1941 when he and his parents fled the Nazi invasion of Ukraine.
“The train was being bombed and people were being killed in front of his eyes by shrapnel,” she said.
Rishin, his parents and brother ended up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he lived, working as an attorney, until 1998 when the family emigrated to California because of unrest in the country.
“Everything he made, he built, he loved, he had to walk out on it and leave everything behind,” said Svetlana Rishin, who is also an attorney.
His craving for stability is part of what makes getting an eviction notice particularly heartbreaking, Rishin’s daughter said. And it’s only been made worse because of the recent death of her brother, Musiy Rishin’s son, who lived with him during a long battle with cancer until he passed away in April.
“In the midst of it, my father got struck by this very cruel behavior by the landlord,” Svetlana said.
According to Svetlana, who is currently staying with and taking care of her father, the landlords have been trying to get rid of her father since a few years after he moved in, considering him an undesirable tenant. They were looking to upgrade, she said: “They started remodeling the building to position it as a ‘luxury’ building.”
Then this year he was given first a notice to pay an additional $700 in rent, and, on the heels of that, an eviction notice.
In an interview with the Guardian, the landlords, Margaret and Spencer Tam, said the building is a business venture for them and they want to charge market rate for the two-bedroom apartment. Rishin’s subsidized rent is currently $2,540 a month.
“That’s still not good enough for them,” McCracken said of the owners.
J.’s attempts to contact the Tams have been unsuccessful.
Svetlana Rishin said that attempts at mediation have not borne fruit. She added that the issue for her father is not that he would become homeless, but that he was being forced to leave a place where he felt safe.
“For older people, they cannot be moved easily,” she said. “It’s one of the most traumatic events.”
Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft called what was happening to Rishin “heart-breaking,” but also said that it was important to think hard about measures that could make it less likely that landlords will accept Section 8 tenants in a city already suffering from a tight housing market.
“Part of the dilemma is we don’t want people to be discouraged from becoming Section 8 landlords,” she said.
Ashcraft declined to predict what would be the outcome of the Sept. 3 vote, but voiced sympathy with Rishin.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said. “But I do know this is a very sad, egregious situation.”
If the city council vote doesn’t go his way, Rishin will have to battle the Tams in court. “His options are going to be extremely limited unless the Alameda city council acts,” McCracken said.
The Rishins are hoping Alameda will change its policy. And public opinion seems to be building: a pro-rent control group is holding a rally outside Rishin’s Alameda apartment complex to support him on Saturday, Aug. 24.
“If they do the right thing on the third and take the right action, he’ll be able to stay in his home,” Svetlana Rishin said.
For more information about the upcoming city council vote on Alameda’s rent ordinance and upcoming fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, there will be an information session at the Alameda Free Library Stafford Room, 1550 Oak St., Thursday, Aug. 29, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.