How San Francisco can fix a glaring loophole in California tenants rights legislation

State law gives new protections, but there’s still more to be done

By Sasha Perigo

originally published by the SF Examiner, reprinted with permission

Starting this January, San Francisco renters will see an unprecedented expansion in their rights thanks to statewide legislation.

Well, some of us will.

Thankfully, our Board of Supervisors has the power to fill in some gaps.

On Wednesday housing justice organization ACCE celebrated the legislature’s passage of AB 1482 on Twitter:

“We still can’t believe it.

Last week, the tenants rights movement won a huge victory by getting the strongest anti rent gouging and just cause law passed in the nation — expanding protections to 8M more tenants across CA!”

AB 1482 was authored by San Francisco’s very own Assemblymember David Chiu, and its passage was a major accomplishment in a legislature widely regarded by housing justice groups as unfriendly to tenants. Last year Chiu introduced legislation to repeal Costa-Hawkins, the California law banning the expansion of rent control, only to see it overwhelmingly shot down.

AB 1482 contains two key provisions: annual rent increases are capped at 5 percent plus inflation, and landlords are now required to specify “a just cause for eviction.”

Tenants living in buildings built at least 15 years ago are covered by AB 1482. The 15 year window is a rolling deadline: new buildings will become covered overtime as they age.

According to data from the Planning Department, over 5,000 additional San Francisco tenants who live in buildings built after 1979 but before 2005 will gain rights under AB 1482 in January. Many tenants living in buildings built prior to 1979 are already covered under our stricter citywide rent control ordinance.

Unfortunately, seemingly arbitrary carve-outs in AB 1482 keep some San Francisco tenants from coverage. Tenants living in single family homes owned by a “mom and pop landlord,” as opposed to a corporation, are not protected. Neither are tenants living in government subsidized housing.

Still for San Francisco tenants who are covered by the legislation, AB 1482 inspires hope.

Brandon Harami, who does not live in a rent controlled unit, is one tenant who will benefit from AB 1482. Though he has a positive relationship with his landlord, Harami rent was hiked 10 percent rent increase annually for the past nine years he’s lived in San Francisco.

“My upstairs neighbor is having some health problems right now,” Harami said. If she were to receive another large rent increase, “I don’t know where she’d go.”

Expansion of just cause for eviction will also help tenants facing retaliatory evictions. Currently only landlords of buildings covered under San Francisco’s limited rent control ordinance have to state a reason for evicting a tenant, which makes it challenging to prove intent in court.

While Chiu is celebrating AB 1482’s historic passage, he is disappointed that the final version of the bill passed by the legislature contains carve-outs that don’t protect all tenants.

“My goal has always been to give as many renters the strongest protections as possible,” Chiu said. “The original bill we introduced did not include any carve-outs, and that is the version of the bill I wanted to pass. Tenant bills are notoriously difficult to pass in Sacramento, and to get this one over the line, we had to make some concessions.”

In the California legislature, our representatives have to contend with powerful real estate lobbyists and build consensus with Republicans, but these are issues that our Board of Supervisors does not face here in San Francisco.

Our Board of Supervisors can and should respond to local tenant advocates calls to close loopholes in the legislation.

Lupe Arreola, director of statewide tenants organization Tenants Together, wants the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to lay out a plan to enforce AB 1482.

As it stands, tenants must enforce their own rights. In order to prosecute a landlord in violation of the law, a San Francisco tenant must notice an illegal rent increase and report it to the city rent board. AB 1482 will necessarily lead to a greater caseload for the rent board, which Arreola says is already overworked.

Some City Hall movers and shakers are already stepping up to provide leadership on these issues.

Supervisor Matt Haney has expressed interest in expanding the just cause protections outlined in AB 1482 to apply to more San Franciscans:

“The creation of just cause protections statewide is a huge and important victory, but it doesn’t go far enough. I’m committed to building off this momentum, filling in the gaps and expanding just cause locally.”

Tenants rights attorney and socialist candidate for District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston has promised to make big progress on tenant protections if elected. “I’ve been pushing for just cause within housing circles for years,” he said.

Preston supports a “landlord licensing” program in San Francisco. This database could close the data gap that the city faces in enforcing AB 1482 by tracking which rental units are on the market, when they were constructed, and how much landlords are charging in rent.

While state legislation under Costa-Hawkins prevents our Board of Supervisors from expanding rent caps at the city level, there are no shortage of other ways San Francisco elected officials could strengthen AB 1482 locally.

As for Costa-Hawkins? Tenants, take notice of the expansion of your rights under AB 1482 and demand further.

While wages remain stagnant, a 5 percent rent cap is insufficient to protect renters from our severe housing crisis. Join the San Francisco Tenants Union and learn your rights.

We’re just getting started!

Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.