Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco is among the nation’s most expensive rental markets, but it also offers most tenants some of the country’s strongest protections – from limits on rent increases to strict rules on how and when a person can be evicted.
Four laws proposed this year would go even further, making it harder to raise rents and evict tenants. The legislation is broadly aimed at keeping people housed as the city stares down a recession that’s affecting the rich, middle class and poor alike.
Three of the proposals, which will have their first public hearing May 18, would broaden the rights of tenants in the city’s approximately 170,000 rent-controlled units – those built prior to 1979 – by allowing renters to add roommates and suspending or limiting rent increases that are a hardship to tenants.
The fourth and latest proposal, expected to be formally introduced today by Supervisor John Avalos, would give eviction protections to tenants in non-rent-controlled units – about 17,000 of them citywide, according to advocates. Currently, landlords can evict tenants in rent-controlled buildings for 14 “just causes” – among them failing to pay rent or if the landlord wants to move in – but those in buildings constructed after 1979 can be kicked out for any reason.
Avalos’ proposal is aimed at protecting people in foreclosed homes who are being evicted by banks, he said. Last year, 667 foreclosures occurred in the city, and at least a quarter of those had renters living in them, according to the Assessor-Recorder’s Office.
Those renters include people like Laurel Moeslein, a 23-year-old student who moved into a Diamond Heights apartment in February only to see it foreclosed upon immediately. Now, Moeslein is unsure of where to pay her rent or whether she will have a home for long.
Landlords and their representatives, however, see Avalos’ proposal as unnecessary and possibly a bid to expand rent control. Janan New, director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, represents 3,000 landlords. She said occupancy rates have been falling, pushing prices down for renters at the same time that property values are dropping.
New pointed out that the relatively few foreclosures have occurred in San Francisco compared with surrounding cities and wondered why a change to law is necessary. In cases where tenants lose income, she encouraged them to negotiate with their landlords on a case-by-case basis, something she said is happening.
“I don’t believe the expansion of just-cause eviction is warranted. What’s the need for it?” she asked, adding that Avalos’ proposal could be challenged in court. “The city wouldn’t have to spend money (fighting legal battles) if they stopped throwing hand grenades and sat down with us to create policies.”
Supporters of the expanded protections argue things are tougher for renters, who are more likely than landlords to be low-income, blue collar and disproportionately affected by layoffs and government cuts.
Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee, said her nonprofit assistance program is seeing more and more people come through its doors looking for help. Unlike years past, many of those losing their homes are families.
Caroline Latham, CEO of the Novato research firm RealFacts, noted that while rents remain high in San Francisco compared with other cities, occupancy rates are hovering around 90 to 95 percent – which is good for both sides.
“It has been the case many times in the last 20 years that landlords had a lot more power than tenants, and that’s currently not true,” she said. “I would say right now we have a very well-balanced market – and the truth is, everybody wins when it’s a balanced market.”
Robert Link, principal at S&L Realty, a firm that rents out about 300 units, agreed that the market isn’t as soft in San Francisco as news reports might suggest. He has no vacancies right now, but said that renters may be able to get good deals because market rates have fallen.
But he questioned why city leaders always rush to help renters when owners never seem to get the same treatment.
“The problem is it’s always a one-way street” in San Francisco, added Link. “There’s no adjustment when the market moves up and people are locked into leases for life.”
Shortt acknowledged that some landlords may also be struggling to pay their bills but argued renters need help now.
“A business income issue is extremely different than having a roof over your head,” she said. “The stakes are really different.”