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Tenants in San Francisco Fight Back Against Nuisance Evictions

San Francisco tenants are refusing to allow landlords to displace them from rent-controlled units in order to raise rents.

Tenants and activists hold a press conference outside San Francisco City Hall supporting a tenant-protection bill. (Photo: Adam Hudson)

Leaving a stroller in the hallway. Hanging laundry out a window. Living with a new roommate. These everyday activities have now become eviction-worthy offenses in the eyes of some landlords in San Francisco, who are using low-fault or nuisance evictions over issues like these to chase long-term tenants out of rent-controlled units. The city’s tenants, however, are refusing to go down without a fight.

Dozens of tenants, tenants’ advocates and property owners crowded into San Francisco City Hall to share testimony about their evictions and discuss a tenant-protection bill at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee hearing on July 27.

The bill, authored by San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, tackles low-fault evictions. In contrast to no fault evictions – in which tenants are not seen as at fault for their eviction – low-fault evictions are when landlords use minor but easily corrected offenses to evict a person. The particularly egregious example of a low-fault eviction concerning laundry occurred last March, when residents of a single-room occupancy hotel in Chinatown received eviction notices for hanging laundry outside their windows. After residents protested and Mayor Ed Lee intervened, the notice was quickly withdrawn.

The new tenant-protection bill seeks to tackle low-fault evictions by strengthening the right of tenants to live with relatives and “roommates and provide tenants with more time to address landlord complaints before an eviction lawsuit,” according to a press release from the racial justice and tenants advocacy group Causa Justa :: Just Cause. The bill would also prevent landlords from evicting tenants for minor lease violations; compel landlords to provide substantial reason to evict someone for being a nuisance; control rents after an eviction to reduce the economic incentive for landlords to evict people; mandate that eviction notices be written in English and other languages like Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Tagalog and Russian; and provide tenants resources to fight impending evictions.

To afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rate, one would have to work 4.4 minimum wage jobs in San Francisco.

From March 2014 to the end of February 2015, there were 2,120 eviction notices filed to the Rent Board, which is a 54.7 percent increase over the past five years. Among those 2,120 notices, 738 were for breach of lease, 401 were nuisance evictions and 343 were owner move-in. In March 2015, 195 eviction notices were filed, while there were 223 in April. The San Francisco Police Department completed 508 evictions from January to July 2015, according to the Sheriff Department’s numbers. Ellis Act evictions – in which a landlord evicts tenants by pulling their property off the market – decreased in recent months but are now slightly increasing, according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

Meanwhile, rents in San Francisco continue to shoot up. In May, San Francisco rent hit a new record high of $3,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, according to the real estate website Zumper. This is 1.2 percent higher than April’s figure, which was $3,460. San Francisco’s median rent for a one-bedroom stayed the same in June and July at $3,500 a month.

The city’s rents have increased 12.9 percent over the past year. In fact, it’s so expensive to live in San Francisco that the city is currently facing a teacher shortage. San Francisco Unified School District is short 51 teachers because many teachers cannot afford to live in the city. Elsewhere in the city, SUB-Mission, the all-ages music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District whose struggle to stay open was reported on by Truthout, finally shut down last month, pushed over the edge by a rent hike.

San Francisco recently voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018. Currently, the city’s minimum wage is $12.25 an hour. However, San Francisco’s minimum wage increase is nowhere near enough to afford living in the city. According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, in some neighborhoods like Outer Sunset and Excelsior, one would have to work around 3.8 to four minimum wage jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rent value – and that’s at the low end. At the high end, one has to work 6, 7 or 8 minimum-wage jobs to live in a market-rate two-bedroom apartment in neighborhoods like The Castro, South of Market, Financial District and Pacific Heights. A National Low Income Housing Coalition report found that one needs to make an hourly wage of $39.65 – $82,480 annual income – to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rate. This means in order to afford that kind of space, one would have to work 4.4 minimum wage jobs in San Francisco.

The genesis of the bill came from tenants and several grassroots groups fighting evictions throughout the city. As Sarah “fred” Sherbum-Zimmer of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco explained to Truthout, “Every tenants’ groups got together, and we were just like, ‘We need this to stop!’ and we were like ‘What do we need to do to make this stop?'”

“Why should someone get evicted because of a stroller?”

While Ellis Act evictions – which got heavy publicity and pushback last year – were going down, landlords were using other excuses to evict people. So tenants and activists decided to look at the loopholes landlords were using to evict people. “Right now, [according to] the law in San Francisco, with a couple of notable exceptions, it should be hard to get people to move out. But landlords don’t follow the spirit of the law, they follow the technicalities,” she said.

After brainstorming about the most common forms of evictions and how they could close the loopholes, “We got together on the loopholes we could change, and this is the list we came up with,” said Sherbum-Zimmer. Supervisor Jane Kim “was willing to work on it with us” and very helpful in authoring and advancing the bill. Supervisors John Avalos, David Campos and Eric Mar also signed on to support the bill.

Landlords have grown increasingly clever with low-fault evictions, using a gamut of loopholes and excuses to evict people. One is owner move-in eviction, in which a landlord evicts a tenant to move themselves or their relative into the unit. According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s analysis, from 2010 to 2015, 1,058 owner move-in evictions were filed to the Rent Board. Between 2011 and 2014, owner move-in evictions increased by 270 percent. This year, 147 owner move-in evictions have been filed.

It is legal for landlords to evict a tenant if they or their relative wants to move in, however, it cannot be done for profit – as in the landlord cannot do an owner move-in eviction and then raise the unit’s rent afterward. But this is often exploited by landlords. As Sherbum-Zimmer of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco told Truthout regarding owner move-in evictions, “We see most of them are fake, actually.” Landlords use owner move-in evictions as an excuse to displace tenants from their homes. Sherbum-Zimmer mentioned one case where a tenant faced an owner move-in eviction from his landlord, even though that landlord had dozens of vacant apartments in the buildings she owns in the city, including a vacancy above his. But the landlord wanted the tenant’s apartment because it was “nicer.” Once he fought the owner move-in eviction, the landlord piled on another eviction notice for lease violations and nuisances.

But that’s not all. There are a slew of other dirty tricks landlords use to evict tenants. Maria Zamudio, an organizer with Causa Justa :: Just Cause, told Truthout, “Landlords will use people’s language access to evict them. So sometimes they will give them a notice, not tell them what it is, not give them any resources, and there are a lot of people who lose on technicalities because they didn’t know what it was.”

That is why the bill’s language translation requirement is so important, according to Zamudio, because it lets non-English-speaking tenants know that they are being evicted and gives them the means to protect themselves. Zamudio also pointed out that nuisance evictions are prominent. She explained that nuisance evictions are “little things that, all of a sudden, get exaggerated.” Causa Justa “had a client who had a stroller in the hallway. And she got a nuisance eviction and she had to go fight it in court,” which raised the question of “why should someone get evicted because of a stroller?”

Some landlords are displacing tenants by intimidation tactics rather than formal evictions.

Another example is landlords telling people who have had companion animals for years that they can longer have them. Landlords will also use roommates as an excuse to kick people out. As Zamudio explained, retired seniors with “big apartments” and “their kids moved out or their partner passed and they’re like, ‘Well, I want to have a roommate’ or ‘I want to be able to make my rent.’ And so they get a roommate. They’ve had a roommate for a really long time. All of a sudden, the landlord says, ‘You’re illegally subletting!’ or ‘I’m not going to let you have a roommate.'” Landlords will use these excuses – a stroller in the hallway, hanging laundry outside, having roommates or pets – to argue that tenants are being a “nuisance” and, thus, justify evicting them.

Neil Hutchison, a video engineer and journeyman, told Truthout that his landlord, Laus Investment Group (which has several negative reviews on Yelp), recently served him an eviction notice and is “trying to claim now that I’m not a tenant.” Hutchison is a San Francisco resident of 20 years who lives in a rent-controlled unit in North Beach for $2,100 a month. “They [the landlord] are trying to claim they never knew I was there; that I was a sub-tenant,” he said. This is despite the fact that his landlord has a realty office below his apartment.

Zamudio added that there is “a whole business in evicting tenants now. There are lawyers involved. This is how they make their money.” There are landlord boot camps, organized by real estate attorneys, which advise landlords on coming up with clever tricks to evict people. “Things have just gotten a lot more sophisticated because it’s big business. And there are people whose job it is to come through contracts that are 40 to 50 years old and be like, ‘Gotcha!'” said Zamudio.

Another method is buyouts, in which landlords pay tenants to leave a building. In the 81 days from early March to early June, “landlords filed 19 buyout agreements and 100 disclosures of initiating buyout negotiations. A reached agreement must be filed within 60 days. Of the total 19 buyouts, sums ranged from a low of $6,000 to a high of $80,000,” according to the San Francisco Examiner. The neighborhoods with the largest numbers of buyouts were in the Mission District at 23, South of Market (SOMA) at 13, in the Haight at 9, and 8 in Inner Richmond.

Some landlords are displacing tenants by intimidation tactics rather than formal evictions. Tenant advocates say one of them is Anne Kihagi, who also goes by Anna Kihagi and Anna Kihagi-Swain. Kihagi owns several properties throughout San Francisco, particularly in the Mission and Castro neighborhoods. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued Kihagi last June in San Francisco Superior Court. Herrera accuses Kihagi of waging “a war of harassment, intimidation and retaliation” through a number of “strong-arm and unlawful tactics” to illegally displace long-time tenants in rent-controlled apartments so she can resell the units at a higher, market-rate value. Kihagi’s notorious intimidation tactics include installing surveillance cameras in common areas and creating “house rules” that govern “things such as pets, use of storage rooms, backyard access, parking rights, laundry and storage of large items, such as bicycles,” according to SFGate. In addition, utilities like gas, electricity and cable services are allegedly shut off and the landlord has been accused of not cashing rent checks and later accusing tenants of not paying rent.

According to a report by the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, this is a fairly common tactic. Another recurring landlord tactic, according to the report, “is to deny receiving cash payment of rent or to build up hidden charges and then spring charges on tenants, demanding they ‘pay in three days or move.'” One Latina San Francisco resident told the committee that the eviction she went through caused her anxiety and depression, along with a feeling of discrimination and harassment. Even though she successfully beat her eviction, she said her landlord continued to “harass” her and those she lived with by claiming “we weren’t making our payments on time, even though she was the one not cashing the checks.”

One of Kihagi’s tenants attended the meeting. Allison Leshefsky, a public school teacher and San Francisco resident of 10 years, lives in a rent-controlled apartment in the Castro District for which she’s paying $2,000 a month for rent. Leshefsky told Truthout that Kihagi “is trying to harass me out by making all sorts of false accusations. Namely about me subletting, which I’m not, or me having a dog, although I have a signed pet agreement and addendum to my lease for that. She continues to try to get me out because I’m rent-controlled so that she can replace my unit for higher-paying tenants.” She added that Kihagi evicts tenants largely through “owner-ins and low-fault evictions” and “targets rent-controlled tenants, like myself. Especially ones that are vulnerable and low- to mid-income and elderly or Latino residents.”

Kihagi’s attorney, Karen Uchiyama, told SFGate that Kihagi is doing nothing illegal, the tenants are bad and her client intentionally buys buildings “with loose management and bad tenants” because they are cheaper. “Anna buys buildings with bad tenants in them, and they deserve what they get,” she said. “Some investors want move-in-ready, beautiful buildings with perfect tenants. Other landlords have no problem buying cheaper buildings with bad tenants because they are going to enforce the rules and be able to kick them out.” But Leshefsky said Kihagi’s tenants are just normal people trying to live their day-to-day lives and not cause any trouble. Truthout contacted Uchiyama’s office by phone for a rebuttal and left a message but Uchiyama did not respond.

Leshefsky said she lived in her unit for nine years “very peacefully” but alleges that Kihagi has been evicting and harassing tenants since she bought the building last year. Last summer, she added, Kihagi instituted new “house rules” at Leshefsky’s unit. The nine-page house rules document, said Leshefsky, is Kihagi’s attempt to reform the tenants’ lease agreement. “These house rules were very bogus, ranging from me not being able to have a pet to having to tell her when we go away on vacation,” Leshefsky said. “Having to pay our own water was one of them and a bunch of other bogus rules that were not the original forms of our lease agreements.”

Kihagi then began evicting Leshefsky’s neighbors, such as “rent-controlled people who have been there for decades.” Leshefsky never received an eviction notice but has been bullied by Kihagi as a way to make her leave. She said bullying tenants is cheaper for Kihagi rather than spending the legal fees required to formally evict someone. “Who wouldn’t want to save money on legal fees when you can just harass people and, hopefully, [they] leave on their own? But I’ll tell you, I’m not going anywhere,” Leshefsky said.

While activists concede that the tenant-protection bill, alone, is not enough to curb gentrification, it is an important measure in stopping evictions and keeping people in their homes. Moreover, it is part of a “multipronged strategy,” as Zamudio put it, to combat gentrification.

Supervisors Malia Cohen and Scott Wiener voted to delay the bill, while Jane Kim – the bill’s author – voted to move it forward to the full Board of Supervisors. Last June, the Board of Supervisors refused to pass a law that would temporarily halt market-rate housing development in the Mission District. Even though the moratorium law had wide public support, particularly from working-class Latinos and other people of color in the Mission, it was shy two votes to be approved. The Board voted 7-4 in favor, which is below the 9 votes required to pass.

The San Francisco tenant-protection bill is one example of the anti-gentrification movement that is heating up in the Bay Area as housing prices continue to rise and more people get displaced. Across the Bay, in Richmond, California, the city council, pressured by a growing social movement against gentrification, recently passed a strong rent control measure that will go into effect on September 4. Given the mood of tenants and housing rights organizations at San Francisco City Hall, this fight is not over.

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