housing ballast investments tenants landlords housing services
Dave Massen, 76, stands in front of the building he's lived in for decades. Developers plan on uprooting multiple parking spaces, the laundry room, and storage units to make way for four accessory dwelling units. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken June 15, 2021.

Dave Massen won’t ever move from his building on Church Street. He admires the way the ivy creeps along the gate, the way the dragonflies whiz by, and how it’s a stone’s throw away from Dolores Park.

But in January, he discovered a proposal to gut the majority of the building’s parking spaces, laundry room, and storage units, so the property owner, Ballast Investments, can tack on four accessory dwelling units. This wouldn’t just severely inconvenience Massen, but threaten the makeup of the home the 76-year-old has lived in for decades. “They’d ruin it,” Massen said, who uses all of the services. 

So Massen told District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who wasn’t surprised. In fact, as it turned out, other developers were also attempting to remove services in residential buildings all over the city. 

Brad Hirn, a lead organizer and advocate at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, said that he is t currently working with residents of at least 10 to 15 buildings where housing services were being threatened, potentially affecting as many as 500 tenants. Hirn said that while this was happening citywide, the buildings he worked with were located primarily in Districts 2, 3 and 8.

“Huge real estate investment firms have made a business model out of buying rent controlled buildings and exploiting whatever loophole they can to maximize their own income and drive out long term rent control tenants. That is the M.O,” said Hirn. 

On Tuesday, Mandelman and his office proposed an ordinance saying that property owners can’t eliminate or reduce housing services unless they have just cause — which, according to the legislation, excludes permits for accessory dwelling units

Mandelman spoke at a rally in front of Massen’s residence, where other tenants confronted with the same problem — many of them seniors — voiced concerns. Already, Mandelman’s office is working on three cases in District 8. 

Hirn said Mandelman’s legislation is “one more tool to chip away at that business model.”

The supervisor emphasized that he welcomes more housing development in San Francisco, including accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. “But not when you’re taking a service away from an existing tenant,” Mandelman said. “What they’re doing is wrong. We need to try to stop it.”

Already, it’s illegal to take away housing services like access to laundry or storage from tenants without “just cause,” Hirn said. Yet because current language doesn’t specify whether adding an accessory dwelling unit is “just cause,” property owners have been incentivized to rip apart services and propose new units, Mandelman said. That’s been seriously affecting tenants. 

Aaron Leifer, who has lived in the same Church Street building as Massen for 18 years, said one of the reasons he chose the building was because it supplied extra storage. “[Stuff] accumulates, but also, my apartment is small. This is really stressful,” Leifer said. He added that parking would be whittled down from about 17 spaces to five. 

And the laundry room served more than dirty clothes, Massen said. It’s been a community meeting place at times for tenants; Mandelman stopped by to campaign once, he added.

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Mandelman’s legislation attempts to favor tenants. It also states that any reduction or removal of a housing service that qualifies for just cause, like bike parking, trash disposal or off-street parking, will be compensated by decreased rent. And if these housing services are “wrongfully” removed — think evictions — tenants can go to court and obtain a judgment worth triple the amount of damages. 

Dressed in a rainbow-striped button-down, Richard McGarry, whose building was also affected by reduction of housing services, praised how the legislation forces more communication between the Planning Department and the Rent Board. The ordinance states that landlords must file a declaration to the Rent Board that they have “just cause” to sever a housing service, or that proposed construction won’t impact existing housing services. The declaration is due to the Planning Department within 30 days. 

Tenants must also be notified 15 days before a landlord plans on adding an ADU, the legislation states, with proof of notification sent to the Planning Department. This way, tenants like Leifer wouldn’t be so surprised; he didn’t know about the plans to commandeer all the park spaces until Massen rounded up the neighbors. “Thank God David was monitoring,” Leifer said. 

Pauline Grant, a tenant from the Richmond who spoke at the rally, agreed. Grant said her landlord wants to remove parking spaces and the laundry unit, which is a huge “inconvenience.” She’s lived there since college, nearly 40 years.

“I just want to say that I’m really grateful that I knew somebody in another building. That’s the only way I would have known about this,” Grant said.  

The legislation must go to the Planning Commission next, and Mandelman estimates it’ll be heard before the full Board of Supervisors by September. 

A concerned citizen asked if the ordinance can “freeze the process” for developers before then. It won’t, but if passed, the ordinance can promise the legal remedies of triple the damages to tenants, Hirn said. 

“It does send the signal, I hope, to the planning commission, the Board of Appeals that this is illegal,” Mandelman said. “They should not be facilitating these kinds of efforts.” 

Massen and other tenants are hoping to sit down with Ballast later this month to discuss scaling back the development plans; he said one person seems open to conversations. Already, Massen and others filed a discretionary review to delay the process. 

“I’m not going anywhere. This will be my retirement home,” Massen said. “I got a role in saving this building.”

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Annika Hom

Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused...

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16 Comments

  1. Just as it is illegal for San Francisco to charge an “Inclusionary Housing Fee” on the bonus density granted by the State Density Bonus Law — Mandelman’s proposed local law limiting the creation of ADUs is likewise a violation State Law AB-68.

    On both points, inevitable lawsuits will be forthcoming which the City will lose and, unfortunately the taxpayers will be on the hook for the resulting damage$.

  2. At what point will the “this is definitely not a takings” crowd start losing for their regulations which are definitely takings.

  3. Only in San Francisco: turning parking spaces into rent controlled apartments can be credulously described as displacing tenants.

  4. Those who shout loudest about a lack of housing do everything in their power to discourage the development of new housing… more “progressive” logic from the gang that can’t shoot straight.

  5. Dave Madden has obviously benefited from white privileged . These units need to be reserved for brown and black people . The people who make your life possible. Mow your lawn, change your kids diapers and serve you food . Blue collar people are good enough to work for you but not good enough to be your neighbors . Guys like this are born on third base . Minorities first .

    We need to judge a society how they treat the most vulnerable and not the lazy white man to the front

  6. So removing car parking would restricted but removing bike parking would not be?

    Transit first is a joke about in this city.

  7. It must be close to election time if D8 Supervisor is getting worked up about anything.
    Let’s see if anything comes of this or it’s just more grandstanding and free press

  8. It is already the case that if a parking space is leased with the unit (on the same lease document) then it cannot be taken for an ADU, ever. If it leased with a separate yearly lease or month-to-month lease then that space can utilized at the end of the parking space lease. By state law rent control applies to residences not to parking spaces.

    One of my clients put washer-dryers in each unit, for the tenants, and then use the laundry room as part of an ADU. Was this a “diminishment of services because the tenants lost their “meeting room” ?

  9. So Mandelman wants to outlaw replacing storage space for cars with housing for human beings? I hope he’s at least a bit embarrassed the next time it claims to care about climate, housing, or transit first.

  10. I once lived in that Church Street building’s identical twin just further up the block. The ground floor was almost entirely parking spaces. (The J stops right across the street.) The laundry room was huge, about the size of two studio apartments. In my building, the parking could have been eliminated and the laundry room relocated to create many new apartments — at least 6. This building is even better because it’s detached on 3 sides, meaning more light and air for the new “garage apartments.” They should keep a laundry room somewhere, though. Ours was 4 washers and 4 dryers. Not hard to recreate. And I get losing your parking space – I rented one, too. But prioritizing cars over people in that particular neighborhood – Dolores Park – is shameful.

  11. isn’t there supposed to be a report coming out soon that tells us how much how many units are sitting vacant because speculators are hoarding them?

  12. “Mandelman’s legislation attempts to favor tenants.” There needs to be a massive asterisk in that statement. This legislation would benefit only those tenants who already have a place to live. Those who have been priced out of San Francisco are told that car storage is more important than a home for them. Yet we claim we’re a transit first city that cares about fighting climate change?

  13. 700 church street is a 30-unit building on a single lot (surrounded by $2-5M single family homes) where each occupant has about 300-400 sq ft per person on average, nearly all in studio apartments, plus modest 6ft x 6ft storage rooms that make living at such great density even possible, and these spaces were committed to them when those financial commitments were made.

    Just as a building owner can’t tear down your wall to give your existing closet to a future tenant in a yet to be rented (or even constructed) apartment next door, neither is it fair game to do so for their “storage”. At least not in a building that already sets the curve on small footprint, high density living for a city that values it.

    This is why we have a rent ordinances to begin with – and they only apply to older SF buildings anyway. Storage units, just like tenants’ closets, aren’t fair game to be taken away by force so they can be rented to someone else. Seems logical to me, especially in a building that is already the densest building construction within a mile in any direction.

    Lawsuits will make it more cost effective to leave folks’ rented and protected usable space with the tenant that currently possess as protected under the rent ordinance.

    People often pay 1.5 to 2x market rates for a decade or longer in these buildings and do so precisely because a building qualifies for housing security and rent ordinance protections for the buildings that actually afford and preserve those protections.

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