The San Francisco supes start discussing fraudulent owner-move-in evictions Friday, and local tenant groups are asking that both of the bills coming to the committee be amended to include more effective protections for renters.
Sup. Mark Farrell has an OMI bill. So do Sups. Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin. The Government Audit and Oversight Committee will hold a hearing starting at 10 am on eviction enforcement, and tenant advocates plan to be there in numbers.
The two bills are aimed at addressing what everyone agrees is a serious problem: Landlords are getting rid of rent-controlled tenants by arguing that they want to move in (or let a close relative move in) to the apartment. That’s legal, for the most part – the owner of a building has the right to live in their property.
But in hundreds of instances every year, the landlord tosses out the tenant, waits a few months, and then rents the place out to someone else at a much higher price.
And there’s no easy way to stop that.
The evicted tenants can, and sometimes do, follow up by hiring a lawyer who hires an investigator who checks to see if the landlord actually lives there, and if the eviction was a scam, they sue. But that assumes the tenants (a) know the law, and (b) have it together to find a lawyer who will do this work, and (c) haven’t signed away their rights as part of an eviction buy-out.
See, landlords love to say that there’s no defense to an OMI eviction, and offer the tenants a few thousand bucks if they just sign a paper – which say, in legalese, that they can’t sue later.
The city never checks to see if the eviction was fake. In fact, the city doesn’t always know that OMI evictions are happening, because a lot of landlords don’t bother to file the required notices with the Rent Board. Since there’s no enforcement and no penalties, why bother?
It gets worse: By law, a tenant has only a year to sue – but a landlord is supposed to live in the place for three years after an eviction. So Greedy the Landlord evicts his tenants, messes around for a year with supposed renovations, spends a night or two in the place, and after 12 months puts it back on the market – and the tenant has lost all rights to do anything about it.
The two bills both require more information. Landlords would have to file a sworn statement that they intend to live in the place (Farrell) and would have to file annual reports for three years stating that they do, indeed, live there (Kim, Peskin). In both cases, a landlord who lies could be prosecuted.
But what happens if they never file anything? Who will know? How will the city keep track? “We would be counting on landlords to submit information, and we already know they often don’t do that,” said Deepa Varma, director of the Tenants Union.
The tenants are asking for several changes to make the laws work.
For starters, they want to make the failure to file an OMI report with the Rent Board, including the sworn statements, an “absolute defense” to an eviction. That is, if those documents aren’t on file, a judge would have to toss the eviction claim. (Under current law, a landlord who fails to give the proper notice to tenants can’t evict them; failure to give notice is an “absolute defense,” meaning there is no discussion or debate.)
Then they want the city to follow every OMI case – to check in regularly to make sure that the landlord isn’t cheating. Building inspectors follow up on building permits to make sure the work was done properly; the Rent Board ought to have a team of inspectors who regularly monitor every OMI for the three-year period.
Oh, and if the landlord isn’t really living in the place, the tenants should have the immediate right to return, at the old rent, and the landlord should face criminal charges.
They also want to end the sleazy deals where tenants sign away their rights to sue. “Make it so you can’t sign away that right,” Varma said. And the statute of limitations has to change – if the landlord has to live there for three years, the tenants should have three years to file a suit.
Private nonprofits like the Tenants Union also want the right to file their own cases to enforce the law.
This is one of the major tenant issues of the year. The bills won’t actually come out of tomorrow’s hearing; they will be heard at a later point. But we will see the beginnings of the debate shape up.