The supes approved new limits on owner move-in evictions Tuesday, taking a big step forward toward addressing the city’s latest eviction crisis – but by a 6-5 vote, the board members refused to add enforcement provisions that would provide the city data on landlord buyouts.
Tenant advocates were pushing for two key provisions that were in a bill by Sups. Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin. That bill was killed in the Land Use Committee in favor of a competing, weaker measure by Sup Mark Farrell.
One provision would allow tenant organizations the right to sue landlords who do illegal owner move-in evictions. That’s critical since the city has largely failed to enforce the existing law.
The other would crack down on “buy-out” deals, in which a landlord offers a desperate tenant who is facing an OMI eviction some cash to leave quickly and quietly – in exchange for giving up their right to sue if the landlord cheats and never moves in.
Under current law, landlords have to file any buyout agreements with the rent board, so that the city and tenant advocates can figure out how many rent-controlled housing units are being taken off the market. They filings are supposed to provide data on how much tenants are getting paid – in many cases, renters who are not fluent in English, are seniors, or are immigrants are taking tiny settlements, while those with sophisticated lawyers get a lot more.
But many landlords never both to file – and nothing happens to them.
The tenant plan was simple: If a landlord doesn’t file the buyout agreement, then the provision in which the tenants waive their rights to sue would be rendered unenforceable. That would, Peskin said, be a strong incentive to get landlords to file the paperwork.
And as he noted, “knowledge is power.” He pointed out that the supes had been hearing horror stories of OMIs for years – but until NBC News did an investigation and found that at least 25 percent of these evictions were fraudulent, “we as a city failed” to address the problem.
The tenants facing eviction “have a gun pointed at their heads,” Peskin said. “They are waiving their ability to go against the person who never moved in. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there does it make a sound?”
Sup. Jeff Sheehy, who had been a cosponsor of the Farrell measure, agreed to introduce the “private right of action” provision, which passed unanimously.
But he refused to support the buyout enforcement provision. “This goes too far and gets into a two party agreement between the tenant and the landlord,” he said.
The motion to amend the buyout provision into the bill failed 6-5, with the usual split between the progressives and the pro-market moderates playing out. (Interestingly, the two supes who own rental property – Peskin and Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer – voted with the tenants, Fewer noting that good landlords are hurt when others don’t follow the rules.)
That would have been the end of it – but then Sup. Katy Tang, who had been quiet, asked to make some comments, which required the board to rescind the vote and open it up again for discussion. Tang said that she was only reluctantly supporting the private right of action, but thought that was all the city needed to do.
For a moment, Sup. Malia Cohen seemed to be wavering. She said she agreed with Peskin’s comments about information, saying that the information on buyouts was similar to information about racial bias in police stops. “If you aren’t counting, then you don’t count,” she said.
Sup. Hillary Ronen pointed out that the law already requires landlords to file buyout agreements; she was an aide to former Sup. David Campos when he passed that legislation. But neither of them had imagined that the law would be so totally ignored with such impunity.
“What’s so insidious,” Peskin said, “is that tenants give away all their rights for a fistful of dollars, then go back and find out that the landlord never moved in, and they can’t do anything. Having that data would be a remarkably powerful thing.”
Ahsha Safai, who has had the support of the real estate industry, said that he didn’t want the board to interfere with a contract between two parties. “I don’t understand how you can invalidate the total agreement,” he said.
Actually, the only part of the agreement that would be invalidated was the part where tenants would give up the right to sue even if the landlord cheated.
Fewer noted that “if we don’t do this now, we will have to come back to it.”
But even after all that discussion (which Tang probably regrets opening up) the final vote was the same:
Kim, Ronen, Fewer, Yee, and Peskin in favor of the tenants. Breed, Cohen, Farrell, Tang, Sheehy and Safai with the landlords.
The overall bill, which then passed without dissent, is a huge improvement, and the private right of action a major victory.
But in the final count, on the key contentious vote, we saw where the board majority comes down. And we saw that Sheehy, who will face the voters in the spring, was part of it.