Martha Gutiérrez thought her problems were over. In 2020, she was granted a restraining order against her now ex-husband for domestic violence, forcing him to move out of their one-bedroom apartment and leave her in peace. Now, that departure likely leads to her eviction.
Wednesday evening, an attorney for Gutiérrez’s landlord confirmed that he is filing an eviction against her for nonpayment of rent. The impending eviction case marks the final part of a months-long battle between Gutiérrez and her landlord, the Reese family, about whether she can stay in her home.
Advocates for Gutiérrez point to the unusual and complex case as an example of blindspots in San Francisco tenant law.
Gutiérrez’s ex-husband was the only tenant listed on the lease of their rent-controlled apartment on San Bruno Avenue. When he vacated the apartment — per the restraining order — her landlord, Troy Reese, decided to legally revoke Gutiérrez’s rent control at her home of 23 years. That bumped her rent to $2,000, from $1,130. At present, Gutiérrez said, she cannot pay the difference.
“I left crying. ‘This man is going to throw me out,’” Gutiérrez recalled telling her attorney, after receiving an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent in early June. “I pray to God that I don’t have to live on the streets.”
In April, the 65-year-old fought the rent increase in court, but an administrative law judge ruled under the state’s Costa-Hawkins Act, which permits landlords to reset the rent when an original tenant moves out, the rent increase was legal. Gutiérrez appealed the case, but the city’s Rent Board Commission upheld the ruling on May 16, emphasizing she was never on the original lease.
To Thomas LaLanne, an attorney representing the Reeses, the decision was a long time coming. “My clients are a hardworking Black family, and they provide an apartment for Martha and her [ex-]husband with hardly any rent increases.”
During her tenure, the apartment also went without proper repairs, Gutiérrez alleged. (LaLanne claimed Gutiérrez ruined the apartment and refused to let the Reeses properly repair it. She denies this.) Gutierrez’s lawyers filed a separate case against Reese for her unit’s unacceptable living conditions, and won $10,500 a few weeks ago.
That sum gives her enough to pay off some debt. But unless she can keep up with the legal increase and pay off the rest, it is unlikely the court will allow her to stay. And that, said, her lawyer and others, is part of the problem.
“The way the law is written, there is no protection for survivors of domestic violence,” said Thomas Kroner, the attorney representing Gutiérrez.
Discussions at the rent board mentioned the domestic violence accusations briefly, as it was not the central legal question in what is a Costa-Hawkins case. Instead, commissioners opined whether Gutiérrez was technically continuing the previous lease, which did not include her name.
Commissioners ultimately decided she was not, and that it had been legal for the landlord to increase her rent by $870, a 77 percent increase. If Gutiérrez had remained under the city’s rent control cap, her maximum increase would have been a fraction of that amount.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s legislative aide, Ana Herrera, called into public comment at the May 16 appeal and disagreed with the commission’s decision, adding that the decision affecting a domestic violence survivor “highlights … larger policy implications.”
“A tenant who is a domestic violence survivor is subject to an unlimited rent increase … ” Herrera said, recounting the situation in disbelief. “ … Solely because a domestic violence restraining order was issued against their abuser, who happened to live in the unit first.”
LaLanne, the Reese family’s attorney, painted a different picture. He alleged that Gutiérrez initiated the fight when the domestic violence occurred. He said the ex-husband, 81, was accused of murder after the incident but was acquitted by a jury, which he reiterated in the rent litigation documents.
Who is an ‘original occupant?’ That is the question
Despite the connection to Gutiérrez rent increase case, what happened during the domestic violence incident was not up for debate at the Rent Board. It’s unlikely to sway a decision during a potential eviction case, either.
The major determinant over the eviction depended on the appeal hearing on May 16, when the Rent Board ruled 3-2 in Reese’s favor. Still, some commissioners strongly sided with Gutiérrez.
Costa-Hawkins states that a person can keep rent-control on a unit if they are an original occupant, which can be established if a landlord accepts the previous rent.
Commissioner Dave Crow, a tenant attorney at Crow & Rose, reasoned that the Reeses had accepted payment of rent for months at the original $1,130 rent-controlled price and not said anything. Gutiérrez claimed she sometimes even paid her rent in person.
“I think we have a situation where the tenant could reasonably assume that she had acquired tenancy status because she had been paying these guys, for what? Two years?” Crow said. “We’re speaking [about] direct meetings with the landlord.”
Reese disputed this account in court documents, said he gave a timely warning of a rent increase. He said he had accepted Gutiérrez’s lower rent due to pandemic restrictions on pursuing evictions, and expected to collect the remaining balance later, according to court documents.
That’s how the majority of the commissioners saw it. Commissioner Dave Wasserman, a city commercial real estate broker and landlord attorney since 1994, reiterated Reese’s argument about pandemic policies preventing rent collection. Accepting a lower rent in this circumstance, Wasserman said, isn’t the same as accepting Gutiérrez as a co-tenant or original occupant, and didn’t satisfy Costa-Hawkins’ exception.
“If these three years were the same as the last three years, I might agree [with Crow],” Wasserman said. “But we all had to make some allowances during the pandemic.”
Wasserman also argued that Gutiérrez had moved in “four to six” months after her ex-husband, casting doubt on the idea that she was an “original occupant.”
Commissioner Richard Hung expressed some hesitation. “I’ll confess, I was confused by this one,” he said during the deliberations, but he — along with two other commissioners — voted to approve the rent increase.
Kroner, Gutiérrez’s lawyer, disagreed. He said the money orders were key evidence that proved she was a co-tenant. “The appeal hearing was a joke, if anything.”
As it stands following the appeal, Gutiérrez must now pay $2,000 per month. The ruling was also applied retroactively to the years Gutiérrez had paid the lower rent, meaning she now owes $14,000 in back rent or faces eviction for nonpayment of rent. Though she’s trying to find a job, Gutierrez can’t afford that on her $1,110 disability checks, her only source of income presently, she said. Kroner said she has dipped into her savings to bridge the gap.
As of Wednesday evening, LaLanne was filing the official eviction papers. If the parties don’t settle — which, as of Wednesday, seemed unlikely — the case goes to court at a later date.
“I’m really sad, and I don’t understand,” Gutiérrez said in Spanish. “How are you going to do this to me after 23 years of living here?”