The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday that will provide more protections to tenants living in illegal units and in-law apartments throughout San Francisco.

The amendment to the city’s Building and Planning codes requires landlords who want to make changes in units major enough to displace the residents there to notify those tenants – even if the unit is illegal. That advance notice would give tenants the opportunity to appeal any permits and stave off their eviction.  The new legislation pertains to landlords who plan to “demolish or merge” a unit, which could mean renovations like removing a kitchen, stove, or bathroom. 

Current law only requires such notice for legal units. Under the new ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Scott Wiener, landlords must notify all tenants once an application for a demolition permit has been submitted.

At present, Wiener said, tenants of some units have little or no time to appeal at the Department of Building Inspection or the Board of Appeals to fight their eviction.

“This inequity is completely unfair when you have people paying rent to live in a unit, often for decades, at risk of losing their homes without any notice whatsoever simply because that unit is not legally recorded in San Francisco,” said Wiener. “That is not right and we need to close that loophole.”

The ordinance, which Mayor Ed Lee is expected to sign next Friday, will take effect after 30 days.  It came about after housing activists identified the “loophole” in the current law.

Tommy Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee, said he has witnessed an increase in evictions of tenants living in illegal units.

Rather than taking the steps to register these illegal units with the Department of Building Inspection a process in which the illegal unit’s tenants are protected many landlords are choosing to remove illegal units and evicting the tenants.

“That’s a ‘just cause’ eviction for the tenants,” said Mecca, referring to such evictions having been legal under the old law.  He said that some landlords were evicting tenants and then re-renting the units at a higher rate.

Mecca became aware of the problem last year when he represented a family being evicted. “They were Chinese speakers, and they were being evicted, “ he said. “By the time we got to the Board of Appeals, we were told that they sympathize with the family and that they should have the right to an appeal, but that the law doesn’t allow it.’”

Strengthening the rights of tenants, regardless of the legality of a unit, is an important step in addressing the housing crisis, said Mecca.

“Landlords know they can get more money if they get those tenants out, keep it illegal, and re-rent it,” he said. “I’m glad that politicians have stepped behind this ordinance.”