File photo: housing units along Harrison Street.

The public comment bell rang throughout Monday’s Land Use Committee meeting as tenant rights advocates and property owners stated their case for or against expanding just cause protection laws to housing units built after 1979.

In his raspy voice, Supervisor John Avalos outlined his reasons for bringing the new measure to the table: the economic crisis and increased foreclosures, and the discrepancy in just cause eviction protections between tenants who live in pre-1979 buildings and those who live in post-1979 buildings.

“It’s nothing radical,” he said, making sure to highlight that the proposal would not extend rent control.

To underscore the latter, Delene Wolf, executive director of the Rent Board, said that a landlord would still have the right to raise rent under the new proposal. State law prohibits rent increase protections in all post-1979 buildings.

“The intention is not to prevent an industry from being able to blossom,” said Supervisor Avalos, trying to put landlords at ease.

But as far as the property owners were concerned, the new measure would do just that.

“Enough is enough,” said property owner David Ficks. “I was an excellent landlord but you drove me out.”

Ficks argued that the proposed eviction restrictions would leave units vacant or become owner-occupied units rather than rental units. The incentives for owners to keep rental properties would diminish.

From above her glasses, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell surveyed the packed room as it exploded in applause. “We’ll have none of that,” she said, and asked those in attendance for restraint.

Sara Shortt from the Housing Rights Committee stepped to the podium and pointed out that many developers who intended to sell condos now have to rent them out because of the economic downturn. There are close to 10,000 new rental units on the market, she said.

“There’s a bigger universe of renters,” argued Shortt, who added that many post-1979 properties have been foreclosed, have become bank-owned, and that banks automatically evict tenants. “It’s their habit,” she said.

Planning Commissioner Christina Olague also came out in support of tenants.

“We’re here because we’re the ones sitting on the other side of the phone,” she said. Tenants who are evicted have a difficult time as it is moving from one rental unit to another at a comparable cost.

“This is not such a big deal,” she said, echoing Supervisor Avalos’ sentiments.

Small property owners, however, were quick to subtract themselves from the equation.

“If the problem is eviction by lenders, deal with banks, not small landlords,” said Lena Emmory, a small property owner who feels that landlords have been stripped of all of their property rights. “If you have tenants you can’t evict, your rights are being infringed upon.”

The law that now covers apartments built before 1979 requires landlords to give one of 15 reasons to evict a tenant. The Avalos proposal would extend those same protections to post-1979 buildings.

Soon, the issue became a basic philosophical one: the inherent rights of property owners vs. the inherent rights of tenants. While the former were struggling to keep their rights, the latter were fighting to further theirs.

“We don’t want to get into the good landlord-bad tenant, bad landlord-good tenant argument,” said Josh Binding, a San Francisco tenant of seven years. “They all exist.”

Peter Reitz, another small property owner, said he lowered a tenant’s rent by $300. “We do everything we can” to help tenants, he said. “And there’s no way we’d evict without a reason.”

That led the discussion back to the landlords who own post-1979 buildings and their ability to evict a tenant without having to provide a reason.

But the goal of Monday’s meeting was to gather the testimony and get information on the record to pull together findings that will accompany the proposed legislation. A second meeting is to be scheduled next week.

While Supervisor Maxwell didn’t express her opposition or support, Supervisors David Chiu and Eric Mar showed their support, pending findings.

“I think the tenants really showed that it’s an issue of fairness,” said Supervisor Mar. “But I’m sensitive to the small property owners as well.”

A melodic interlude brought some lightness to the standoff. One gentleman broke into song during his turn at the podium.

… And I won’t ask for promises so you won’t have to lie, we both play the rental game …

At the five-minute mark, the bell rang.

“And I want to thank you for not clapping,” said Supervisor Maxwell.

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Housing, property, and space in general are prized commodities, especially in San Francisco. Nancy López gets to cover the stories that inevitably grow out of the cracks in the vacant storefronts, aging buildings and limited affordable housing - to name a few of the issues - found throughout the Mission District. She welcomes any story ideas readers may have.

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  1. Anyone purchasing a pre-1979 housing unit in San Francisco understands that the unit is subject to rent control and the “just cause” eviction requirement, just as anyone who purchased a unit after that date had not been subject to those burdens. The BOS is adding a legal detriment to the thousands of homeowners and other owners of post-1979 housing units without providing us with any compensation, fair or otherwise. It’s appropriate that the Land Use Committee is hearing this on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – this is exactly how the communist system had operated. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is still relevant today as it explains a lot about how the “progressives” get elected in San Francisco. Instead of telling the sheep (the tenants’ groups) to bleat “four legs good, two legs bad”, tell them to repeat the slogan “renters good, landlords bad”. After a while, it gets really hard to tell the pigs apart from the farmers, especially when some of the pigs are purchasing homes in foreclosure in other towns like Fairfield and then evicting their former owners!

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  2. If the proposed provisions are “unfair” for post 1979 buildings why is it fair for those built before 1979?

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  3. Sup. Avalos and his allies on the Board would like to take something of value from owners of housing units built after 1979 (the exemption from “just cause” eviction) without providing any compensation to them. It worked well in the Soviet Union and Cuba, so why not here in San Francisco? Anyone who buys residential real estate in San Francisco is a sucker anyway – just ask Chris Daly!

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