State Assemblymember David Chiu and several colleagues have put forward legislation that would bar landlords from using a tenant’s immigration status to intimidate them into leaving. He and other state and local lawmakers and community leaders announced the proposal San Francisco’s Mission District, at the Mission Neighborhood Community Centers building on Capp Street.
Co-authored by State Senator Scott Wiener and seven other state legislators, the bill, AB 291, would make it illegal for a landlord to disclose a tenant’s immigration status. It would also prohibit landlords from threatening a tenant with reporting them to immigration authorities if the tenant reports building violations. Under the legislation, that prohibition from exposing a tenant’s status extends to questions that might come from landlords or their attorneys during a trial or hearing.
California already prohibits landlords from asking prospective tenants to verify their immigration status, and the San Francisco Rent Ordinance includes some protections against evictions in retaliation to complaints about habitability. But the law does not prohibit landlords from finding out a tenant’s status in another way, or reporting them to immigration authorities. Advocates are concerned with landlords who make assumptions about a tenant’s status and use it to manipulate them.
When Jith Meganathan, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty asked around about immigrants’ relationship with landlords, he received overwhelming response, he said.
“I was flooded with responses of horrific stories of people being threatened with deportation if they reported mold that was causing asthma; electrical wiring… If they protested sexual harassment by a landlord; in connection with gentrification,” Meganathan recalled. “And it was statewide. And it was clear that something needed to be done.”
Shirley Gibson, the Directing Attorney at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, brought a list of threats tenants had reported hearing from their landlords.
“If you go to court you will be deported,” she said one client heard from their landlord. “Don’t you complain, you’re lucky I let you live here at all because you don’t have papers,” another reportedly said.
Passing tenant protections at the state level, however, is an uphill battle. Chiu recalled another piece of legislation he proposed last year, which protects tenants from being entered into renter blacklists even if they prevailed in their eviction proceedings, barely won approval in both houses, winning by just one vote.
“Having these protections really in the law, including some pretty serious penalties, will cause landlords to think twice before they take advantage of tenants… I want to thank Sen Wiener, Assemblymember Chiu,and the other members of the legislature who are willing to take on a very tough fight,” Meganathan said.
Chiu noted, however, that this bill to protect tenants from immigration-status based intimidation has been the fastest one to receive widespread support from his fellow legislators.
It also needs the support of landlords, said Spike Kahn, who owns several properties in San Francisco and often advocates for stronger tenant protections. She noted that she had been a vocal proponent of the so-called “Tenant Protections 2.0.”
“The law did pass and the sky did not fall. The landlords are continuing to rent their buildings, such as myself, for huge profits and the bad apples of our industry were reined in,” she said. “We need to do more than just collect rent. We need to provide safe haven.”
The proposal comes in the wake of President Donald Trump’s threats to cut federal funding from sanctuary cities (and a subsequent lawsuit against him brought by the city of San Francisco); a travel ban affecting those arriving from several Muslim-majority countries; and directions from the White House to deputize local law enforcement officers to assist immigration enforcement.
Just last week, immigration enforcement agents made appearances around the Mission District, including at a community resource center on Cesar Chavez Street, where they made contact with staff but made no arrests.
“You don’t imagine the level of despair our staff and our parents felt,” said Sam Ruiz, the director of Mission Neighborhood Centers.
That visit prompted several agencies to expedite the formation of a rapid response network and to host training sessions to educate immigrants on their rights.
“This is horrible, this is not right, and the resistance has begun,” declared San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at the conference. “We are in a fight for our immigrant population and it is serious.”
The legislation will require approval from the houses of state government and Governor Jerry Brown to become law.