A contentious portion of new legislation to combat fraudulent owner-move-in evictions has passed muster at the Board of Supervisors, giving nonprofits the right to sue landlords who illegally kick out tenants under the pretense of moving their own households in.

San Francisco law allows landlords to evict tenants to move in themselves or have a relative live there, but sets restrictions.  The law requires the owner or relative to live in the unit for at least three years. This is meant to discourage landlords from using the process as an excuse to raise the rent of rent-controlled units to market rate prices with a new tenant.

Abuse, however, is rampant.  An NBC investigation in November 2016 found that as many as a quarter of the city’s owner-move-in evictions are fraudulent, and later figures from the San Francisco Tenants Union and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project suggested nearly half of such evictions failed to follow protocol.

Legislators began mulling improvements to enforcement, and two competing bills went before a committee of the Board of Supervisors in late June. A hybrid version of the reform was approved unanimously by the Board on June 27, and finally approved July 11.

The approved reforms include a provision allowing nonprofits like the Housing Rights Committee and the Tenants Union to sue landlords who fail to follow the rules of an owner-move-in eviction.

While it’s unclear how much capacity nonprofits will have to pursue lawsuits, the possibility is intended to serve as a deterrent.

“It’s not that nonprofits have a lot of capacity to pursue every single owner-move-in that we suspect to be fraudulent. The threat of legal action from somebody, when right now we know it’s not happening at all, might actually serve do deter people doing this in bad faith,” said Cynthia Fong, a community organizer at the Housing Rights Committee.

The reforms also requires landlords to declare under penalty of perjury that they intend to occupy the unit for at least three years. And the legislation requires the landlord to file documentation with the Rent Board about the status of the owner-move-in eviction and adds a penalty for not filing those papers.

Under current rules, a landlord who wants to re-rent the unit after an owner-move-in eviction must first offer it to the displaced tenant up to three years after the eviction. The new rules extend that time period to five years, and also makes it a misdemeanor to charge above the maximum allowable rent during that five-year period after the eviction.

The Rent Board will now also be required to notify the occupant of the evicted unit of the maximum rent that can be charged for that unit and gives the tenant the right to sue for three times any excess rent charged.

The statute of limitations for wrongful eviction claims is also extended by the reform from one to five years.

“We see folks come in every single day about owner-move-in evictions, and often times there is no way to enforce the already existing rules,” Fong said. “Hopefully if it is a little bit easier and more feasible for the city to enforce, it will bring down the number of folks who are thinking of doing an owner-move-in fraudulently.”

Fong called the legislation, “a really big win for the Tenants Union.”

“It really is only targeting bad actors and people who are using the owner-move-in in bad faith,” she said.