Shortly after San Francisco renters celebrated a law that expands tenants’ rights, one of the city’s biggest landlords fired back, notifying its residents that they can be evicted for attempting to organize.
At the end of June, GreenTree Property Management, a subsidiary of corporate landlord Veritas Investments, emailed its residents nine pages of “Updated House Rules” and noted that violating any of them may result in an eviction. The rules prohibit multiple actions vital to organizing, including distribution of “literature” in common areas, the hanging of signs or posters on any doors or windows, and “soliciting” more than four times a year.
The document explicitly states Veritas’ new rules are a response to a new tenants’ law.
Strict new dictums with harsh consequences have disturbed and concerned residents who’ve lived in Veritas properties for years, and signed far less restrictive agreements. W. Blake Gray, a tenant of a building recently acquired by GreenTree and a journalist, found new noise restrictions especially egregious. The rule allows someone to be evicted based on a single “boisterous party,” which is determined by management’s “sole discretion.”
“You are essentially giving the largest landlord in San Francisco the power to evict based on the say-so of the resident manager,” Gray said. “I don’t want to live next to someone who has loud parties, but there has to be a warning process.”
Gray replied to his property manager’s email and said he believed the rules to be illegal. “They wrote the most horrible set of rules and rights they could think of,” he said.
Though only a court could decide on the legality of the rules, many of the rules do appear legal according to a tenants lawyer. But some are more shaky. For example, the solicitation limit appears to adhere to San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 49A.2, subsection b, which states “the landlord may establish other reasonable requirements … of such literature distribution, including a limitation of distribution.” An earlier version of that section had limited organizing to four times a year, but that had been explicitly removed in the new tenants’ law passed this year, making it unclear if a limit would be legal.
Still, “only a court would be able to make a determination on [legal] reasonableness” for specific cases, said Christina Varner, the executive director of the San Francisco Rent Board, the city’s Rent Ordinance oversight body.
To Veritas consultant Daniel Baldocchi, it’s clear the company is acting within its rights. “It’s more establishing rules around the organizing so it’s … reasonable,” Baldocchi said. He added that much of the language was borrowed directly from San Francisco Apartment Association housing guidance.
On the other hand, the rule about posting signs on doors appears to be illegal, said tenant attorney Joseph Tobener, who said this is the first time he has seen a rule restricting organizing in his 20 years of practice. He said a landlord cannot prohibit the posting of political signs.
“In my experience, GreenTree often pushes to the edge of what is legally allowed, and frequently crosses the line,” Tobener said.“These house rules are yet another example of this.”
The GreenTree document that these updated rules supersede any rules in tenants’ prior leases: “Failure to comply… may constitute a just cause for eviction.” This jolted the scores of GreenTree residents who received the email.
Existing tenants, however, cannot be evicted for violating these “updated house rules” unless they sign a document accepting the new lease terms, according to Section 12.20 of the Rent Board Rules and Regulations. Nowhere is that protection noted on the updated rules document sent to GreenTree tenants, which some residents complained was only available in English.
Debbie Nunez, a Veritas renter and member of the Veritas Tenants Association, feared that non-English-speaking tenants might misunderstand and readily accept the terms. “They are really masters of semantics, when they say ‘updates.’ [The new rules] contain things that could or would materially change an individual’s lease agreement,” she said. “Excuse my French — I call bullshit.”
If the rules are included in new tenants’ leases, they could possibly be legally evicted for violating the rules over a breach of lease, said Varner. These rules would make new leases much more restrictive than the original ones signed by longstanding tenants like Nunez and Gray.
Both of these tenants have no doubt that the rules were written explicitly to dilute organizing efforts and, as Nunez put it, to “interfere with the newly granted [tenants’] rights.”
And she is right that GreenTree’s Updated House Rules stipulate that it is a direct response to a recently passed city law that grants tenants the ability to “unionize” — a law that residents in 20 Veritas San Francisco buildings have attempted to use.
“Some of the changes you will find in this update to the House Rules are in response to new legislation,” begins the Updated House Rules document sent to residents. “This legislation grants tenant associations greater ability to organize and to confer with their building’s management team … ”
Although the updated rules intended to respond to increased tenant power, it seems to have stoked it. Nunez said she thinks other residents will “stand up” once they realize what Veritas is doing.
Gray hasn’t joined a tenants group, “but this made me want to do it … Maybe we want the power to stand up to a big corporation like Veritas.”
This article was corrected on July 7 to reference and link to the updated administration code. An earlier version referred to an outdated version.