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.
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.”