Landlords who wrongfully evict rent-controlled tenants in San Francisco could soon face criminal penalties and hefty fines.
Two separate pieces of legislation, scheduled to be introduced during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, call for major changes to the city’s housing laws that would impact renters and landlords citywide. The push comes as a direct result of a six-month NBC Bay Area investigation that exposed what appears to be widespread abuse by landlords kicking out rent-controlled tenants in order to charge new tenants higher rent.
“I’m not going to sit here and standby idly,” said Supervisor Mark Farrell, who authored one of the proposed ordinances.
“It was the great work of NBC that really turned up the volume … to really talk about and identify and expose the amount of fraudulent practices that are happening in this area and really spur us into action.”
His legislation, which takes aim at landlords who try to wrongfully evict tenants, would provide city officials with additional tools to go after landlords who fraudulently use what is known as an “owner move-in” eviction.
In San Francisco, landlords can legally evict their tenants if they – or in some cases, their relatives – want to move into the home. However, NBC Bay Area found a lack of oversight may be allowing some landlords to wrongfully kick out rent-controlled tenants in exchange for new tenants willing to pay substantially more in rent. Despite current laws prohibiting the practice, the investigation found they are rarely, if ever, enforced.
“If you own a piece of property and want to move back in, I think everyone should have the right to do so,” Farrell said. “But I’m not going to sit here and stand by idly when you see and hear of cases where people are blatantly breaking the law.”
After knocking on hundreds of doors across San Francisco last year, NBC Bay Area was able to survey residents at more than 100 addresses where an owner move-in eviction took place. In 24 cases, nearly one in every four, neither the landlord nor their family member was living in the unit. In some instances, new tenants had moved into the home, paying significantly more rent than the previous tenants.
“It’s Emotionally Exhausting”
When owners kick out tenants through an owner move-in eviction, current housing laws require landlords or their relatives to move into the unit within three months and live there for at least three years. A series of Investigative Unit reports, however, revealed city officials do not check to see whether owners actually move into those units, which has forced tenants to play detective if they suspect they were wrongfully evicted.
“It’s exhausting. It’s emotionally exhausting,” said Nicole Delisi, a 4th grade teacher who had a hunch she was being fraudulently forced out of her San Francisco apartment when she came home to a 60-day eviction notice taped to her door in 2015.
“There were a lot of tears, there was a lot of anger,” Delisi said. “I didn’t know what direction to go. I felt lost.”
She was paying about $1,450 a month for her apartment, but believed her landlord, Collin Lam, could get at least double that if it was placed on the open rental market. The only option for Delisi to find out if she was being wrongfully evicted was to sue her landlord, which would allow her attorney to question Lam and his brother-in-law, Jordon Wong, who claimed to be moving into the home.
Caught on Camera: “New Tenant” Didn’t Know Number of Bedrooms
In a videotaped deposition, however, Wong could not answer basic questions about the apartment he was supposed to be moving into, including the number of bedrooms. Neither Lam nor Wong responded to NBC Bay Area's requests for comment.
“It falls to individuals to find attorneys to help defend them,” said Mark Hooshmand, Nicole Delisi’s attorney. “Ultimately, the tenants have to go out of pocket, most cases, to pay an attorney to defend them even if it’s a completely bogus eviction.”
Hooshmand said he gets at least one phone call a week, and many more emails, from tenants who believe they’re being fraudulently evicted. While there are tenants’ rights groups that can help to a certain extent, those groups have limited resources.
“There needs to be a lot more done to protect tenants, to protect the policies in place and to protect peoples’ belief in the system,” Hooshmand said. “There needs to be a lot more checks and balances so that landlords can’t get away with it.”
Hooshmand eventually won Delisi’s case, however, she did not want to comment on how much a jury awarded her.
“It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” she said. “It’s still hard.”
Delisi's landlord is appealing be case, so she has not received any of the money she was awarded. She said no amount of money, however, can make up for being forced out of the apartment and city she loves.
“That was just my sanctuary, my sanity,” Delisi said. “I saw whales migrating in the evening, I walked my dog. For me, that was more than money could ever offer.”
Delisi she said she couldn’t afford another San Francisco apartment on her teacher’s salary, so she was forced to move to Alameda.
“We have a housing crisis in our city,” Farrell said. “Tenants who are evicted, and especially those who are fraudulently evicted, often this is their last chance in the city of San Francisco. So, we need to be on their side and protect them at all costs through the legal system here in San Francisco.”
“People are Blatantly Breaking the Law”
Farrell’s proposal, which aims to keep residents like Delisi from being forced out of San Francisco, would require landlords or their family members to present evidence they actually moved into the unit, such as a utility bill or new voter registration. Such documentation would need to be provided annually for up to three years following the eviction.
The ordinance would also beef up the city’s enforcement mechanisms, which housing advocates and tenants’ attorneys have long criticized as ineffective. The legislation would require landlords to sign a declaration, under penalty of perjury, that they or their relatives intend to move into the unit for at least three years.
A second proposal, being introduced by supervisors Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin, would make it easier for the city to hit landlords with fines and jail time if they wrongfully kick out tenants in order to charge new tenants higher rent. Although it's already illegal for landlords to raise the rent on a unit for three years after performing an owner move-in eviction, city officials say the current laws are tough to enforce.
Current law requires the Rent Board to submit a random sampling of 10 percent of all owner move-in eviction notice to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office each month for possible investigation. Yet, over the past decade, not a single landlord has been prosecuted for a fraudulent owner move-in eviction, despite the apparent abuse.
A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office said proving a landlord intended to commit fraud is challenging. Additionally, a 2007 California Supreme Court ruling limited a prosecutor’s ability to use eviction notices as evidence. Farrell, however, believes his legislation would make criminal prosecutions more likely.
“This type of behavior is outrageous and we don’t want to see it continue,” Farrell said. “People are blatantly breaking the law.”
Here's How to Potentially Save Thousands on Your Rent
The Investigative Unit mapped out every owner move-in eviction in San Francisco over the past three years. You can use the interactive map below to find evictions in your neighborhood. While many of these evictions are legal, if your address is listed and you are not the landlord or a relative of the property owner, someone may have been wrongfully evicted from that unit, which might entitle you to lock in the previous tenant’s cheaper rent.
If your address is listed, let us know about it by emailing us here. You may also submit an official request to the city to have your rent reduced.
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Watch the entire series in this NBC Bay Area investigation:
• Part 13: Oakland Housing Director Defends Department
• Part 14: Oakland Housing Chief "Fired," Says Source