San Francisco Before Rent Control

Image from "Pushed Out for Profit," a 1978 documentary by Charles Bolton.

Think rents are insanely high? Imagine San Francisco without rent control. In a series Mission Local ran a while back, reporter Ayla Albayrak takes a look at an emergency ordinance passed in 1979 to approve rent control.

To show the angst that San Francisco and Mission residents experienced at the time, Albayrak edited clips from “Pushed Out for Profit,” a documentary by filmmaker Charles Bolton before the Board of Supervisors approved rent control.

The film aired on KQED on Sept. 6, 1978.

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  1. landline

    The woman in Clip 3 who lives at 880 Shotwell states that her rent in 2008 was $1650/mo and has subsequently increased to $2100/mo.

    That building should be covered by rent control since it was constructed before 1979, and such a rent increase exceeds the allowable increases.

    I hope she reads this website and can get clarification from the Rent Board and Tenants Union about her situation.

    (My wife and I looked at an apartment in that building when we were evicted by our landlord under the Ellis Act in 2005, but the owner wouldn’t allow cats. We found a rent-controlled apartment in a different building in the Mission.)

    • Harry Dog

      I think what the Board of Supervisors needs to do is freeze labor wages next; so that roofers, carpenters, window installers, concrete workers, and everyone else is subject to the 1979 Ordinance as well; that way everyone is frozen in time, and not just the rent on real estate.

      • Harry Crack

        Sorry for the double posting, but this comment fits better here.

        Real wages have been flat since the 1970′s. Low wage, often part time, service jobs have replaced “middle class” manufacturing jobs. Not all those jobs, however, as the US suffers from long term unemployment rates last seen in the 1930′s.

  2. landline

    I mistyped the address. It should read 840 Shotwell.

  3. guest

    huh? without rent control, rents would actually be LOWER. Rent control causes non rent-controlled units to have higher rents. It also reduces incentive to build more supply, which also increases rents

    • Dan Partridge

      Okay, you don’t know anything about the local rent control ordinance, which exempts places built after 1979–having no effect on building at all.

      Learn the ordinance before you try to trash it.

      • Harry Dog

        Builders do not trust the City, because the City used to not have rent control imposed on small property holdings, such as 2 and 4 unit buildings; now it does. ..

    • So rent control magically subverts supply and demand, and applies to properties that wouldn’t be covered under rent control?

      Yeah, that makes a LOT of sense.

      • Travis

        It doesn’t subvert supply and demand, actually it’s a very basic demonstration of how supply and demand works.

        Losing rent control would increase the cost of those apartments, pricing some people out of the market. This increase in the supply of available apartments would decrease the overall cost of rent.

        • SAM

          Wow, Travis. You’re saying that jacking (doubling, tripling etc) the rents for the poor so high that they are wrenched out of their homes in such huge numbers that it might reduce rents for the filthy rich?

          uh, no.
          Even the Great Recession, with its years of job losses and dried up cash for renovation still did not reduce rents in SF. Frankly, nothing will.

          Ending rent control and the resulting catastrophic exodus might arrest growth of high end rents for a few weeks. at most.

          Also, its obvious that land owners are aware of this, because if they truly believed that ending rent control would reduce rent, they wouldn’t want to.

  4. Brad

    Rent control is a disaster. It removes any incentive to become a landlord and discourages existing landlords from maintaining/upgrading their buildings.

    • Then please explain why there’s so many well-cared for rent controlled apartments and why there’s no shortage of landlords.

    • Blurpy

      It’s a supply issue. Always has been.

    • tiritiritran tran tran

      Brad, now think about the renters now… it helps to have both perspectives…

    • Sam


      a) upgrading buildings is a disaster for the residents. It means rents will double and they will have to leave. In most cases, it means they will have to leave the city, their neighborhood, their friends, their support, their proximity to work, etc..
      Discouraging landlords from upgrading their buildings would be a service to the community. (this is coming from a carpenter)
      ..but its not actually true. Passing through the cost of upgrades is the biggest loophole in rent control.

      b) SF has no shortage of landlords. If anything, we have far too many wanna-be landlords, and its been overheating the market for a long time. If anything, most residents of SF would benefit from some disincentives to purchasing property. The last thing we need or should encourage is yet more sharks coming into town looking for get-rich-quick schemes at the expense of residents..

      c) responsible landlords maintain their buildings because they have the good sense to protect their investment. We don’t need the other kind, and certainly shouldn’t encourage it.

      • Harry Dog

        Let’s say our carpenter friend has been living in the same rent controlled unit since 1979; do you honestly believe he hasn’t been fighting for wage increases every single year since then? He would say that it is owing to the increase in costs of living; do you think he is going to charge his landlord only slightly more money if he does any work for him at all? Or do you think our carpenter friend will try and squeeze every bleeding penny out of his landlord; imagining him to be filthy rich blood sucking vampire, despite the meager yearly rent increases?

        • Harry Crack

          Real wages have been flat since the 1970’s. Low wage, often part time, service jobs have replaced “middle class” manufacturing jobs. Not all those jobs, however, as the US suffers from long term unemployment rates last seen in the 1930’s.

  5. Bob

    I agree that rent control has been a disaster for the city. It is completely unfair to young people and new residents in general, not to mention property owners.

  6. J.K.

    Too many high income people receive subsidized housing under the current system. I personally know 2 well-paid Apple employees who routinely gloat about their rent control windfall. It makes no sense. Affordable housing should be directed toward those in need.

    • tiritiritran tran tran

      that is a matter of personal values… don’t you think?
      If I were you I would confront them and tell them how greedy they are.

    • Sam

      I’ve seen examples of abuse too. Every rule and situation gets abused some time.
      But for every one of those, I’ve seen dozens of examples of greedy get-rich-quick schemers turning peoples lives upside down and then gloating about their outrageous profit in overheated real estate…

      yes, JK, theres room for improvement.. in both directions. but not by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Harry Dog

      There are plenty of people living in rent controlled apartments who actually own homes in San Francisco and outside of San Francisco, which they rent out to others for whatever they can get. They don’t want their rent going up but they will charge all they can get out of their own tenants. I guess it’s what they call human nature. If you’ve been paying cheap rent for the past decade on a rent controlled apartment, well there goes your down payment money on your own digs.

    • CJ

      As a tenant who has been in a rent controlled building for 20+ years, I can tell you that nearly half of my take home pay goes to pay rent. And the rent isn’t even $1200/month. Trying to save with the COL here is nearly impossible, if I want to actually have something of a life, too. (And I’m not talking about eating out three nights a week, buying lunch every day at work. I make breakfast at home every day, occasionally have a Subway sandwich for lunch but otherwise bring lunch, and have dinner at home 90% of the time.) So no, even those who’ve lived in rent controlled units for many years can’t necessarily afford a down payment on anything in the Bay Area, much less SF specifically. If only that were the case. (And my credit is A+, but I wouldn’t be able to afford the mortgage payments.) The middle class in SF hardly exists anymore. The range between the upper and lower classes is only growing wider.

  7. Matt

    I’m fine with reasonable rent control where tenants and owners have flexibilities. My biggest grievance would be when a long term tenant feels entitled that they own the place because they have lived there 10, 15, 20 years. As it exists a lot of these people would not be able to afford to live in the city if not for rent control and younger generation can not afford to live here because of rent control.

    I suggest we built more affordable housing and not just housing projects that are infested with entitled roaches sucking up resources and giving nothing but problems back.

    • landline

      When you refer to people as “roaches,” you are well along in the process where it is allowable to exterminate them.

    • Oh, just say it. We all know what you really mean when you say “entitled roaches sucking up resources and giving nothing but problems back.” To use such such dehumanizing language to thinly veil an obviously racist statement about the residents of housing projects, it just makes it even worse somehow.

      • Or better yet, DON’T say it, and maybe find a way to sound slightly less offensive.

      • Harry Dog

        They weren’t in the least suggesting people who live in housing projects are roaches; probably the majority of people living a subsidized existence in San Francisco do not live in housing projects, they are not minorities, they are white and they aren’t all boxed together, steered into racial enclaves; which would be illegal if a real estate agent did it, but the City seems to get away with it.

        • landline

          Then I guess I misread Matt’s comment where he wrote, “I suggest we built more affordable housing and not just housing projects that are infested with entitled roaches sucking up resources and giving nothing but problems back.”

  8. badlydrawnbear

    I will give up rent control protections when homeowners give up Prop 13 property tax protections (aka rent control for homeowners)

  9. I have bought gasoline in San Francisco since 1979. Why is the price I pay for gasoline not controlled? Price controls are totally unfair to everyone else and unjust enrichment to a few! It creates two classes of people like segregation did in the South, It is literally the economic version of segregation.

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