For those tenants curious about their rights when a landlord is - or has - sold their property take a look at the first of our two-part series now live on San Francisco's own Broke Ass Stuart:
While San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have had rent control and eviction protection laws in place for decades, tenants living in other cities around the Bay Area have historically not been so lucky. As a result, tenants in these cities have seen huge rent increases and a significant spike in evictions. Thankfully, there has been some pushback of late. In November 2016, several cities voted into law new rent control and eviction protections. Below is a rundown of some of the new laws in the Bay Area.
Voters in Mountain View instituted rent control (at 2% to 5% annually, for units built prior to February 1, 1995) as well as a strong just-cause eviction law, which applies to all units built prior to April 5, 2017. Even San Francisco doesn't have that (limited to pre-June 1979 buildings) Measure V, as the law is known, also provides for a rent rollback for covered units to the 2015 rate or the rate established at the initiation of tenancy, and establishes a Rental Housing Committee to enforce the law.
Until early May 2017, the landlord lobbyist group California Apartment Association was fighting the Mountain View ordinance in court, arguing that rent control was unconstitutional and trammeled on the rights of property owners. However, after a judge denied the group’s request for an injunction to halt enactment of the ballot measure, the CAA dropped their lawsuit, leaving renters in Mountain View to enjoy the law’s protections. A full version of the new ordinance can be found here.
Richmond voters passed a similar law to Mountain View’s, which caps annual rent increases at 100% of the Consumer Price Index. (CPI varies each year, but generally this means that rent increases will be capped at 1% to 4% per year.) The Richmond law rolls back some rents to 2015 levels; creates a Rent Board to enforce the rules; and requires just cause for evictions. A full version of the new ordinance can be found here.
Richmond’s rule also puts a pause on rent increases in covered units until September 1, 2017, at which point the Rent Board will determine the allowable rates.
As in Mountain View, the California Apartment Association attempted to block Richmond’s ordinance through legal means. And just like in Mountain View, the CAA dropped their lawsuit after judges rejected the landlords’ arguments.
Santa Rosa: (On the ballot in June 2017)
The Santa Rosa City Council passed a rent control law in August 2016 -- only to have the law blocked by a petition campaign the next month. Now the city is set to put the issue before voters in a special election set for June 6, 2017.
Tenants’ advocates in Santa Rosa are working to muster local support for the ballot measure, while landlords and their lobbyist groups are pouring money into the fight. As of March 20, landlords--including the same CAA that attempted to block Richmond’s and Mountain View’s laws--had contributed $390,000 to a political group opposing Measure C.
If voted in, Measure C would institute just cause eviction protections and cap rent increases at 3% for covered buildings. If you’d like to see Santa Rosa tenants increase their protections, you can get involved, volunteer or donate here. With the new SMART train expected to open in the near future connecting Santa Rosa to San Rafael, housing prices in Santa Rosa will only continue to increase so putting some protections on rent will be critical to maintaining Santa Rosa's affordability.
Amendments to Existing Rent Ordinances
Oakland: Measure JJ
Oakland voters opted to expand existing protections in four ways.
Berkeley: Measure AA
In Berkeley, renters won bigger relocation payments and some additional rights:
Alameda: Measure L1
Alameda has a higher rate of homeownership than most Bay Area cities, and perhaps not coincidentally, managed to pass only relatively weak tenant protections in 2016. The 2016 measure, Measure L1, does not establish caps on rent increases; however, it mandates mediation for rent increases above five percent. It also establishes just cause eviction protections for most tenancies, and requires relocation payments in certain cases, such as when tenants are senior or disabled.
East Palo Alto: Measure J
East Palo Alto already has had fairly strong tenant laws for many years. This measure clarified a few points, including establishing that rent increases can occur only once per year, and that increases cannot exceed 10% annually.
Taken all together, the 2016 elections demonstrated that many Bay Area cities are ready for tougher tenant protections. What’s more, local organizing for all these movements has strengthened tenants’ groups throughout the region.
Another lesson of 2016? Landlords will not hesitate to fund expensive propaganda and legal campaigns to fight against tenants’ rights. If you support stronger rent control laws, you might consider joining a tenants’ group in your city or county, a statewide organizing group like Tenants Together, or a national network like Right to the City.
The monthly rent, the length of your commute, the relative decrepitude of your washer and dryer -- all these factors are important when you’re choosing a new apartment. But in San Francisco there are other considerations that can seriously affect your future as a tenant.
Even if you think you’ve found your “forever” rental, consider doing some extra legwork. Taking these basic steps could reveal potential red flags, and save you heartache and money down the road.
1. Is It Covered by Rent Control?
Your new place is in San Francisco, so it must be covered by the city’s Rent Ordinance, right? Not so simple. As a general rule, rent control applies to all multi-unit residential buildings in the city built before June 13, 1979. New construction? Not rent controlled. Additionally, unless you’re moving into a condo or single family home with someone who’s been there since 1996, single family homes and condos are not covered by rent control.
When you’re apartment-hunting, find out when the building was built. One easy way to find this out is to plug the address into the search tool on the San Francisco Planning Department website.
2. Is it Covered by Eviction Protection (“Just Cause”)?
Eviction control applies to all residential buildings built prior to June 13, 1979, including single family homes and condominiums. If the building has rent control, it also has eviction control (but not vice versa).
Under the SF Rent Ordinance, there are sixteen just causes for eviction. However, if the building was built after 1979, it is not subject to the rent ordinance at all. This means that your landlord doesn’t have to give you a reason for eviction--just sixty days’ written notice (assuming you are a month to month tenant and have lived in the unit for at least a year).
3. Who is the Landlord?
As you may have gathered, not all landlords are created equal. Consider these questions before you agree to move into a given property:
Does the landlord has a history of being sued or filing bogus evictions? Bad landlords tend to have a history of wrongful eviction or habitability lawsuits, which you can find in the court records. San Francisco Superior Court has a handy case query site; just search by the name of the company or individual to see a list of lawsuits they’ve been involved in. The SF Rent Board also maintains a searchable database of cases that have come before the Rent Board, but you can only access it in person at their offices.
What’s their reputation? Along the same lines you might try googling the landlord, or searching for them on Yelp. Other places to look include the Eviction Mapping Project’s “Dirty Dozen” list of notoriously bad landlords.
You might also consider asking the landlord point blank whether there is much turnover in the building.
Some traits to look for in both big and small landlords are responsiveness, transparency, and diligence. Are your phone calls returned without delay? When you press for more information about lease terms or the building history, does the landlord get squirrely or defensive? Does she make an effort to address your concerns, even if it makes more work for her? Imagine dealing with this person for the next few decades: how would that make you feel?
4. Any Skeletons (or Mold) in those Closets?
Then there’s the property itself. Have any city agencies issued notices of violation? If anyone--tenant or neighbor--has filed a complaint with the city’s Department of Building Inspection, a record of it will show up online. It takes just a few minutes to search by address on the DBI website. These complaints have to do with code violations, so records of many habitability issues will show up here. If there’s a history of violations at the building, it’s a sign of a less-than-attentive landlord.
5. Size Matters
The smaller the building, the greater your possible exposure to a no-fault eviction, such as an Ellis Act or owner move-in eviction. Under current condo conversion rules, buildings with four units or fewer can be converted to condos, while buildings with more than four units are exempt from conversion until at least 2023. If you want to minimize the chance of a no-fault eviction, you may consider renting an apartment in a larger building.
We know you can't always be picky when it comes to choosing a place to live. But even if you decide to move into that not-quite-perfect place, information you dig up now might serve as armor down the road. There’s nothing like apartment-hunting to make you feel disempowered, as though the landlord’s holding all the cards--but you can take back some control simply by knowing what you’re getting into.