Tenants mailing off their demands to landlords on Monday morning. Photo by Annika Hom

Tenants at the St. Albans Single Room Occupancy Hotel on 25th Street wasted no time in taking advantage of a new local law that took effect Monday that forces landlords to negotiate with tenants about building issues. 

At St. Albans, tenants want maintenance work done, a fire alarm fixed and the building cleaned. 

“We need cleaning because we have a right! We are protesting!” read one Latina tenant’s sign at a City Hall press conference Monday morning. 

The new law, sponsored by Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan, states that when half of the tenants in a privately-owned building of five or more units agree to organize, that group or “tenants’ union” earns the right to negotiate with landlords. The law requires landlords to comply, or else concede lower rent.

Tenants are, “in essence, unionizing,” said Peskin, who dubbed the initiative the Union-At-Home ordinance. 

Wilfredo Barrientos was one St. Albans Single Room Occupancy hotel resident who petitioned for his building to organize. 

He said that when a new owner took over four years ago, the building’s maintenance began to decline. Despite attempts to resolve some issues, he said, management refused to talk to residents. “They are ignoring us completely,” Barrientos said in Spanish. “In an emergency, what are we going to do?”

On Monday, Barrientos and others from St. Albans joined tenants from 19 other residential buildings and with the help of organizations sent letters to their respective landlords to declare their intent to unionize and negotiate.

Tenants readied their declarations at the press conference Monday organized by Mission SRO Collaborative, Jobs with Justice, and the Housing Rights Committee. Each filed them into manila envelopes and prepared to send them off. About seven residents from the Mission’s St. Albans, many of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers, attended the press conference. 

Supervisor Chan said these “unions” can also make a difference for monolingual immigrants. “How great would it have been for my mom to be part of a union?” said Chan referring to her mother, an immigrant and single parent. “So that she wasn’t alone, and that she had a group of tenants together negotiating for her living condition to be better.”

Organizers have advocated for the law to be used to negotiate with corporate landlords especially. Fifteen of the letters sent by tenants on Monday are addressed to Veritas, one of the city’s largest landlords. Another letter was addressed to a building owned by Ballast. 

Madelyn McMillian, who represents the Veritas Tenants Association and lives at 240 St. Joseph Ave., said the law gives her and her neighbors confidence that she won’t be retaliated against for certain building complaints. “Some neighbors did not feel comfortable. Now with the law, we don’t have to feel like that. Everything is in the open and we can have meetings in the lobby,” McMillian told Mission Local. 

McMillian plans to meet with neighbors to discuss top concerns for Veritas to address, including construction noise and sudden water shutoffs. “Members in more than 15 buildings are certifying today, and it’s Day One. We will show what it is to unionize,” she said.  

Even Peskin expressed surprise that tenants made use of his ordinance so quickly. “My fear was, when we passed this legislation, that it would be a great idea that sat on the books gathering dust. But these pieces of paper before us show us exactly what we just saw, in a national way,” he said, referring to Amazon workers successfully unionizing in New York.  

While tenants acted swiftly, it’s unclear what response landlords will have from Monday’s letters. “They could object, but now there’s a consequence of the law,” Lenea Maibaum, an organizer with the Housing Rights Committee told Mission Local. 

Mission Local could not immediately reach Veritas for comment. 

Following the press conference, the group of tenants stepped out of City Hall and walked toward the mailbox on Polk Street to drop off their letters. One turned toward Maibaum, the tenant organizer. “What do we do now?” He asked.

“We send the letters, and wait for a response. Then in the meantime, you get your neighbors together and organize,” Maibaum said. 

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REPORTER. 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 on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. Corporate landlords like Citywide and Veritas who own 6K rent controlled units are to blame for the situation. Thank god for strong rent control laws! These money hungry corporations would evict every low income, elderly, and minority tenants paying below market rent so they could rent to young, affluent tech bros & girls who just want to live their best TikTok lives.

  2. So the landlord sits down with the tenants, listens, says thanks for your input and then does nothing. What happens next? Apparently nothing new. Is this just another big words and do nothing SF event?

    1. From the opening paragraph: “a landlord’s failure to allow organizing activities or comply with their obligations as to tenant associations may support a petition for a rent reduction.”

  3. This is a dumb law…vote these people out. I have been a nice landlord but that doesn’t mean anything to these people. Where else does this happen. I hope these dumb laws get rescinded.

    1. It’s not a question of being nice. If you keep your building in good repair and address problems as they develop, tenant unions won’t come after you. I suppose you could fantasize that they will organize and insist that you put in a tennis court and swimming pool, lift the building and put a garage under it, order you to remodel the lobby with antiques and valuable artwork and so on, but that’s not what this is about.

  4. Indeed. I can understand large real estate companies who manage lower income buildings and are just out for profit, but why punish the rest of us who are doing all the right things….helping out tenants during COVID, making repairs instantly, providing housing to those who wouldn’t necessarily qualify under strict guidelines…you’re correct, this is shooting good housing in the foot and when we move out of the business, you have no good landlords who rent at reasonable prices. What folly!

  5. As someone who invests in real estate (as a “nice” landlord), these articles reinforce my one and only investing rule: ABC — Anywhere But California. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there is underinvestment in California residential real estate and that the only landlords left standing are jerks.

    1. There are just about zero Ellis Act evictions in the vast majority of California. Such evictions only happen in San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica and a handful of other cities that have implemented rent control.

      Once started, rent control takes on a life of its own, becoming more and more punitive to those who offer housing services. The “nice” landlords get crushed and gradually get replaced by the not-so-nice landlords. And eventually we get to the point that the only fiscally viable route for a given building is the neutron bomb – Ellis.

      If you have a long enough memory, you will recall that the Ellis Act and the Costa-Hawkins Act only exist because cities went too far with rent control. In a sense rent control becomes it own suicide note, leading to a gradual reduction in the properties available for long-term rental. The result? Higher rents. Oh, the irony

      1. Where are the links to forms for tenants who want to officially form a tenants union? I assume there are forms to be filled that are then passed on to the landlord & the city, yes?