There are countless reasons to love San Francisco including our vibrant cultural scene, amazing restaurants, and countless year-round outdoor activities courtesy of the temperate climate. In 2013, The Huffington Post looked at why San Francisco has some of the nation’s happiest and healthiest people in the nation, referencing a well-known Rudyard Kipling quote: “San Francisco has only one drawback – ’tis hard to leave.” Sadly, our San Francisco landlord-tenant attorney knows at least one other drawback: the high cost of renting an apartment. Few stories call attention to this problem as dramatically as the following look at a woman slapped with the highest rent increase we’ve ever encountered. The story calls attention to a loophole in the San Francisco rent control system but also reminds renters that they can, and should, fight back.
The Rent Hike Heard Round the Town
Last week, San Francisco Magazine highlighted the most recent chapter in a rent dispute that captured the attention of the city earlier this year. In March, a renter used social media to share a photo of a notice from her landlord hiking the rent on her Bernal Heights apartment from $2,145 to $8,900 and also increasing her security deposit from $1,500 to $12,500. That’s more than four times the rent and more than eight times the original security deposit, increases that are even more astounding given that the unit had been, to the tenant’s knowledge, covered by rent control! Unable to afford the rent, the tenant moved out in May. She reports struggled to find an affordable home and had managed to get by thus far by doing various house/dog/cat-sitting gigs. The article reports she will move into a sublet this month.
How did the landlord justify the hike? San Francisco’s rent control law covers most multi-unit buildings that have a certificate of occupancy dating back to June 1979 or earlier. While the building at issue had been operating as a two-unit property, the lower-level unit appears to have been illegal. This meant that the owner could demolish the unit without getting permission from the city Planning Department. In February, the owner removed the plumbing in the lower-level unit effectively converting it from a habitable dwelling into a storage space. The building was no longer multi-unit and thus not covered by the protection of rent control.
The Tenant’s Complaint
On August 18, the tenant filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court. She suggests the rent increase amounted to an effective eviction and violated the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. Allegedly, the owner moved into the unit after the tenant left. The tenant suggests the rent hike was an attempt to avoid the no-fault eviction process for owner move-ins. According to the Complaint, the tenant would have been entitled to receive $9,258.67 in relocation expenses if the owner used the no-fault eviction provisions of the Ordinance. The suit also claims that the owner kept the tenant’s original $1,500 security deposit and lists a number of problems that she says amount to unsafe living conditions including recurrent gas leaks, flooding in the garage, and an unlocked lower level following the departure of the last downstairs tenant.
Our Thoughts, Our Commitment
It remains to be seen who will ultimately win the dispute. We believe there is a strong case to be made that the owner’s actions were simply pretext and the underlying motive was forcing the tenant out of the property. The dispute will likely involve a discussion about whether an owner can lease an illegal unit and then attempt to gain protection because the unit is non-compliant. It will also call for a look at both the letter and intent of the rent control policy.
One important reminder for renters – Even if a landlord or property owner can cite rules in support of their actions, you may still have a claim. After all, a landlord with a bad motive can hardly be trusted to tell you your rights. If you believe your rent has been illegally raised or that you were constructively evicted from your unit (i.e. your landlord forced you out to avoid the eviction rules), please call our San Francisco renter’s attorney to schedule a free consultation.
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