Photo by Lydia Chávez

Landlords hoping to change recently passed tenant protections failed Tuesday night to convince the San Francisco Rent Board that the law should only apply to new leases.

The new ordinance, part of a package of tenant protections introduced by Supervisor Jane Kim, allows tenants to add roommates up to the legal occupancy limit regardless of their lease terms. Landlords would be unable to evict tenants or raise their rent based on the addition of roommates.

“Adding roommates will cause people like me to pull out of the business,” said Aubrey Freedman, a landlord who said he has a good relationship with his single tenant. Many landlords argued that the tenants’ rights law is pushing them to take their property off the market.

The debate centered on whether the recently passed tenant protection ordinance — dubbed Tenant Protections 2.0 — applied to existing leases or leases signed after the law takes effect. Calvin Abe, a landlord commissioner on the five-member Rent Board, said the law was ambiguous about when it should take effect.

He proposed an amendment that would enforce the law only for leases signed after November 9 of this year, essentially nullifying it for almost all current San Francisco tenants.

Landlords were particularly concerned with the roommate provision, which allows tenants to add more roommates than allowed in a rental lease up to the housing code for the unit. Tenants, however, cannot add roommates past the legal occupancy. A studio, for example, cannot legally house more than two people.

Still, many claimed it asked them to shoulder too much of the blame for the city’s housing crisis.

“They’re asking us to be the safety net for people who are in need of housing and cannot afford market rents,” said Noni Richen, president of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute. “Part of the reason the market rents are so high is because the laws are so restrictive [that] people don’t want to do this anymore.”

Although the tenant protection ordinance was passed unanimously by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in September, the roommate provision was more controversial and had to be voted on separately. It narrowly passed 7-4, but faced another potential roadblock in October as rumors spread that Mayor Ed Lee would veto it.

Though he decided against the veto, Lee did note that he disagreed with the roommate provision, writing to the Board that the provision “creates a significant intrusion into certain fundamental rights of small property owners.”

In addition to the roommate provision, the ordinance prohibits landlords from raising rent for five years after a no-fault eviction, prevents evictions for nuisance violations like hanging laundry or living in illegal units, and requires landlords to provide multilingual information for tenants facing eviction.

The commissioners voted Tuesday night 3-2 to oppose the amendment that would have made the protections apply only to new leases, with the two landlord commissioners dissenting.

The decision came after hours of public comment from some 70 landlords and tenants. Landlords said that the law should only apply to new leases, while tenants argued that the law was written to protect tenants with existing leases.

A decision that the law would apply only after the law takes effect would have defeated its purpose, tenants rights advocates argued at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The reason why have this legislation is because we’re having this crisis right now,” said Chirag Bhakta of the Mission SRO Collaborative during public comment. “We fought this battle already at the Board of Supervisors. Please do not commit a disservice by gutting this legislation.”

The decision also hinged on the question of whether the commission had the authority to amend the ordinance so dramatically, with some commissioners calling foul on attempts to exclude existing leases from the law.

“It’s a last minute underhanded attempted to gut Kim 2.0,” said tenant commissioner Cathy Mosbrucker, referencing the protections’ chief backer, Supervisor Kim. “And I really can’t believe that you expect us to disregard the law the Board of Supervisors passed.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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