Teacher and renter Rene Olivas addresses the Government Audit and Oversight Committee. Photo by Laura Wenus

Renters want better protections from landlords who say they’re going to exercise their legal right to occupy a unit and then turn around and rent the unit to a new tenant at a higher cost.

Owner move-in evictions are legal, but tenants say landlords often circumvent the restrictions in place that are supposed to keep them from being used to displace renters paying below market rate.

The city is now grappling with how to offer tenants more protection. Dozens of tenants and their advocates went to the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Friday to tell stories of landlords who went to extraordinary lengths to convince tenants to leave and make room for “relatives.”

One reportedly said an elderly relative was moving in, but the relative already resided at a senior care facility and never moved in.Other landlords allegedly put lights on timers to pretend an empty unit was occupied, or hired someone to move furniture in a unit above a tenant to encourage them to leave.

“I am asking you from my heart,” said one tenant to the Committee, “Investigate these fraudulent evictions.”

“We’ve known that there was fraudulent OMI’s for a long time,” said Deepa Varma, director of the Tenants Union, in an earlier interview, using the shorthand for owner-move-in evictions. “But when we shopped around, we were told that this might be too difficult to do politically and that it might be a pretty big lift.”

That changed after a November NBC investigation showing that nearly a  quarter of 100 owner-move-in evictions the reporters studied ended without the owner or their relative moving in as required.

Supervisors Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin are planning to take testimony from the hearing into account to rework the laws around owner-move-in evictions.

One change suggested by advocates is extending the time in which a former tenant can sue a landlord for fraudulent eviction to three years instead of the current one. Another involves instituting penalties for not filing an eviction notice with the Rent Board, which is currently required but not enforced.

Tenant advocates say the proportion of fraudulent evictions of this kind, in which owners are simply using their right to move in as a front to jack up rents, are even higher than what the NBC investigation and city data imply.

“When the Rent Board says it’s received 2,000 notices of eviction…People understand that to mean there’s been about 2,000 evictions per year. That’s a false assumption. There are 3500 Unlawful Detainers filed in the San Francisco Superior court last year,” said tenant attorney J. Scott Weaver, referring to legal term for an eviction proceeding.

“As alarming as the NBC report is, that 25 percent of OMIs are possibly fraudulent, I believe it’s much higher than 25 percent,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, an advocate with the Housing Rights Committee, at the hearing.

“Landlords are supposed to file notices with the Rent Board, and what is the penalty if they don’t? There is no penalty. How do we know if they don’t file? What happens if someone files a fake OMI? The Rent Board can’t do anything, the City Attorney can’t do anything,” he continued

Indeed, the problem of catching and punishing landlords who evict on fraudulent owner-move-in grounds is very tricky, officials said. As far as criminal cases go, said Evan H. Ackiron of the District Attorney’s office, fraudulent evictions are only a misdemeanor.

After a 2007 California Supreme Court set a precedent that bars district attorneys from filing criminal charges against someone for initiating a legal proceeding, like an eviction.

“DAs throughout state pretty much went out of the business of prosecuting [fraudulent evictions],” he said.

Landlord Anne Kihagi, who faces civil actions for her serial evictions, including four owner-move-in evictions and alleged practice of tenant harassment can’t be tried on criminal charges. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco have brought civil cases against her. Kihagi was recently sentenced to five days in jail in Los Angeles, not because of a criminal charge, but rather because she was found in contempt of court.

So what about the City Attorney, who does not have the power to send anyone to prison for crimes? In civil cases on the city’s behalf, it’s a matter of limited resources.

“Unless the conduct is happening on a large scale, it’s very difficult to justify the commitment of resources that it takes to litigate one of these cases,“ said Peter J. Keith, of the City Attorney’s office.

Nor is the Rent Board, which regulates rents and mediates some disputes, tasked with ensuring that tenants are not kicked out for an elderly relative who then never materializes. The Rent Board may hold investigatory hearings on evictions, but in the last five years has only scheduled two, and only actually held one, according to its director Robert Collins.

Keith said the only remedy for fraudulent owner move in evictions is tenants suing the landlord for damages. Many tenants, however, don’t have access to legal help.

Rene Olivas, a public school teacher who lives in the Mission and is facing an owner-move-in eviction, said until he turned 65 and qualified for assistance from a senior legal aid group, legal representation had been out of the question. His first attempt to get legal help, he said, ended with a quote of at least $18,000.

“As a teacher making a middle income salary, I didn’t qualify for any services, and at those prices I can’t afford a lawyer,” Olivas said.

Tenant advocates like Leticia Arce at Causa Justa::Just Cause are bracing for what they call “OMI season” – the time of year, usually around spring, when owner-move-in notices start to come in droves.

“We cannot permit the loss of any more rent-controlled housing in San Francisco,” Arce said.

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1 Comment

  1. I think one possible remedy is a lawsuit against the landlord. A few years ago, a tenant across the street from us was evicted on an owner-move in. When the owner didn’t move in, the tenant retained a lawyer under a contingency arrangement (that is, the lawyer got a percentage if he won, but not otherwise) and the case was eventually settled, as I understand it, for over $300,000. Serious money!

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