Curses multiplied like bounced checks at Tuesday night’s monthly meeting of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute. To the eight dozen members gathered in the conference room of Saint Mary’s Cathedral—an unusually large turnout—last week’s election brought the latest assault against San Francisco landlords.

At the receiving end of the expletives was Measure M, which adds to the city’s rent ordinance a laundry list of prohibitions and punishments against landlords deemed to be harassing their tenants. San Francisco property owners, accustomed to an unsympathetic electorate, were dismayed but not surprised that voters approved the measure handily, 59 to 41 percent.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Julie, who owns three rental units and a beauty salon in the Sunset District. “I think a lot of landlords are getting tired,” she said, adding that she would sell her property and ease her headaches if the real estate market were better. Like most landlords interviewed for this story, afraid that their quotes could be used against them in court, Julie asked that her last name be withheld.

Measure M was officially called, “Changing the Residential Rent Ordinance to Prohibit Specific Acts of Harassment of Tenants by Landlords.” But the San Francisco Apartment Association, another landlord advocacy group, stated in the voter guide’s opposing argument that “Measure M should be called the Full Employment Act for Greedy Lawyers.”

That’s because, despite the title’s “specific acts,” the 25-paragraph amendment leaves much to the imagination, and ipso facto, up to the courts.

“I don’t know what that means,” said landlord attorney Andrew Zacks again and again as he led the Tuesday meeting through the text of the measure, effective after the Board of Supervisors certifies the election results. “We are going to have to see how that plays out.”

After Zacks’ hour-long attempt to explain the new ordinance and answer questions, along with advice to “be really really careful what you say” to tenants, members joked among each other about the measure’s enigmatic wording as they finished up complimentary slices of pizza and pumpkin pie.

“What the ?$%! does that mean?” one Mission District landlord asked another indignantly after reading aloud the beginning of violation number 15: “Other repeated acts or omissions of such significance as to substantially interfere with or disturb…” He stopped there, making his point well before the sentence concluded.

While Zacks warned that the amendment will increase litigation against landlords of alleged tenant harassment, he also declared that parts violate state and federal law. A successful legal challenge could scrap the measure from the books entirely, he said.

Noni Richen, president of the organization, announced that she is discussing that option with board members of the San Francisco Apartment Association.

At that point, a voice from the crowd asked what landlords can do to help. Zacks answered by encouraging everyone in the room to donate legal fees for the court battle. In his trial-tested voice, he enthusiastically declared, “I hope to be a part of that in some way.”

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born...

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