Frustrations boiled over at San Francisco City Hall Friday as renters and housing advocates lined up by the dozens to share their eviction stories and urge city officials to crack down on landlords skirting the law.
The public hearing was called by Supervisor Jane Kim after an NBC Bay Area investigation uncovered what appears to be wide-spread abuse of city’s owner move-in eviction laws by landlords attempting to force out rent-controlled tenants.
“We need to catch these bad actors, and we need to make them pay,” said San Francisco Tenants Union Executive Director Deepa Varma.
Representatives from the San Francisco Rent Board, the District Attorney's Office, and the City Attorney's Office answered questions from Kim and Supervisor Aaron Peskin about weak enforcement and how loopholes in the law allow some landlords to profit from illegal evictions.
“It’s lovely to have nice words on the books, but if they are not enforceable, they really don’t make that much difference,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.
Over the past five years, there’s been a 200 percent increase in the number of owner move-in evictions in San Francisco. The law allows landlords to evict tenants if they, or in some cases, a family member, want to move into the unit.
“Today’s hearing on eviction enforcement was initiated by the fact that we have seen more than 8,000 people in San Francisco evicted from their homes over the past four years, the fastest growing basis being owner move-in evictions,” Kim said.
Dozens of tenants, some angry or fighting back tears, recounted being forced from their homes because their landlord or their landlord’s family member said they were going to move in. Most said they suspected their landlord never intended to move in, but lacking the resources to fight the eviction, felt compelled to take a buyout and move on. Many traveled to the hearing from new homes outside San Francisco, unable to afford the city’s exorbitant rental prices after being kicked out of a rent-controlled apartment.
“The smart thing to do was to just take the money before I was served an eviction and basically my (stuff’s) on the sidewalk,” said San Francisco resident George Howell, who said he was forced to move into a dingy apartment next to a strip club, but counts himself lucky to still be in San Francisco. “My apartment has been 100 percent Airbnb. Nobody ever moved in.”
NBC Bay Area’s investigation also highlighted another problem – a nearly complete lack of enforcement of the city’s owner move-in eviction laws.
“While they are not a city agency, I should also recognize and thank NBC’s Investigative Unit for taking the time to do the work that I would hope that we would be doing,” Kim said.
The Rent Board oversees the city’s owner move-in eviction process, but Executive Director Robert Collins said the agency doesn’t have the resources to check if landlords or their family members are actually moving in after evicting tenants. Instead, his office submits a random sampling of 10 percent of all owner move-in eviction notices each month to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office for possible investigation. But in the last decade, the District Attorney's Office hasn't prosecuted a single case.
At Friday's hearing, Evan Ackiron, Managing Attorney at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, said a 2007 California Supreme Court ruling made prosecuting landlords for wrongful evictions nearly impossible. According to Ackiron, the court ruled there is a “litigation privilege” under state law preventing landlords, or anyone else, from being prosecuted for "using the legal process." Ackiron said that ruling even applies to eviction notices, considered precursors to the legal process.
“Since 2007, those cases have pretty much been dead in the water,” Ackiron said.
But tenant rights advocates are troubled by the lack of prosecutions, and say there are egregious cases out there that could be tried. NBC Bay Area highlighted one such case earlier this year, when an administrative law judge recommended the district attorney’s office file criminal charges against a landlord after his tenant filed a wrongful eviction complaint with the Rent Board. Even then, the office declined to file criminal charges.
The city attorney’s office, which can file civil suits against landlords and has a lower burden of proof to win a case than the district attorney’s office, said it's filed just one lawsuit in recent years for a fraudulent owner move-in eviction. The office says it typically focuses on cases affecting large groups of tenants, which is generally not the case in an owner move-in eviction.
“Unless the conduct is happening on a large scale, it’s very difficult to justify the commitment of resources that it takes to litigate these cases,” Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith said.
In an effort to strengthen enforcement, Kim and Peskin are now collaborating on new legislation that would make it easier to hit landlords with fines and criminal penalties if they wrongfully kick out rent-controlled tenants in favor of new tenants willing to pay more in rent. Supervisor Mark Farrell also recently introduced his own legislation targeting landlords who violate the law.
“I do want to be very clear,” Kim said. “We are not saying that every landlord is acting in bad faith, or even the majority of landlords are acting in bad faith. But we also know that fraudulent evictions are happening, and everyone, whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, can agree that we want our laws enforced and we want fraudulent evictions to stop.”