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Home Featured Exclusive Protecting tenants from ‘renoviction’

Protecting tenants from ‘renoviction’

Renters are getting pushed out of their long-term homes because city planners don't consider evictions in the permit process

Rent control is only a problem because of the loopholes in the law

As if there weren’t already enough ways to evict tenants, unscrupulous owners now have a new weapon in their arsenal: temporary moveouts justified by renovations, or “renoviction.”

Often, “temporary” becomes permanent when owners propose projects that will obviously take years to complete, or drag out small construction projects that shouldn’t have required relocation in the first place, or pass through rent increases that prevent tenants from being able to afford their apartments.

Tenants are facing evictions through renovation — and city planners don’t seem to care. Photo by Gerard Koskovich.

Advocates have long been aware of tenants permanently displaced by building renovations. But the current Planning Department process for approving permits exacerbates the problem, with neutral technocrats focused on paperwork efficiency using the excuse that they have “no directive” to investigate tenancies.

San Francisco won’t make headway on its quest to solve the affordability crisis by causing the eviction of tenants with low rents and allowing landlords to raise the rents to unaffordable levels. Yet we have found ourselves fighting on behalf of existing tenants caught between owners, planners, and an opaque and time-sensitive permit process.

Protecting existing tenants could be easier if the human costs are considered during the process of approving construction permits and communication improved between government departments. The Planning Department has a moral (and legal) imperative to do so as spelled out in the San Francisco General Plan.

Existing Loopholes

Currently, tenants facing Temporary Eviction for Capital Improvements get standard relocation assistance. Renovations are to be completed within three months after owners, permits in hand, obtain permission from the Rent Board. In a major loophole, beyond three months tenants are on their own to cover costs (in temporary homes likely paying far more in rent) as they hope to re-occupy their apartments. Owners have an incentive to drag on construction and hope the tenant simply gives up their right to re-occupy.

The Tenants Union seeks reform this loophole by increasing the amount due after three months, to incentivize shorter construction times.

If the tenant does return they will likely face higher rent because 50 percent of capital improvement costs can be passed through—whether or not the tenants want the upgrades. Absurdly, in San Francisco tenants are on the hook for 100 percent of seismic work, meaning they must pay so the building does not collapse on them, while the owner retains all the equity. In Los Angeles and other cities, the costs are shared equally between tenant and owner.

Protecting Tenants through discretionary review

On February 9, 2017, the issue of how permits can lead to dire consequences for tenants came to a head with the death of Carl Jensen during a permit application battle. Representatives for the speculator who purchased the building omitted the presence of the 95-year-old tenant from their permit application as they sought to extensively gut and alter Jensen’s unit around him.

When a neighbor testified at the first Planning Commission hearing that Jensen existed and had nowhere to go, attorney Ryan Patterson nervously testified that Jensen would be offered a lifetime lease guaranteeing his security. Tenant advocates who spoke to Jensen disputed that such an agreement was ever actually offered.

An owner can claim one thing to tenants, or the Rent Board and another to the Planning Department and neither mean much, as these departments do not communicate with each other. The Rent Ordinance is complicated and ever-changing, so on their own planners do not always understand the many protections tenants do have.

At the sad second hearing after Jensen had died, Commissioner Dennis Richards urged the planning director to come up with commonsense guidelines for staff to investigate tenancy issues before approval. While there was a nodding of heads by planning staff and Director John Rahaim, as of last week a planner assigned to a renovation project we are objecting to told us that there is still no directive to reach out to existing tenants.

505 Grand View Ave

After new legislation, owners have an incentive to build Accessory Dwelling Units — or small living spaces in extra space such as garages and basements—at the same time as renovation projects and without thorough review of plans. While we support the building of ADUs in existing buildings, they should not be approved without considering how the existing tenants will be affected.

In order to stop dodgy projects, someone must file a “Discretionary Review” in order to have a project undergo extra scrutiny by planning staff.

The Tenants Union filed our first DR for 505 Grandview Ave where three occupied rent-controlled units would have been vacated so that the owner could install a private elevator through their apartments to a new two-story penthouse. Despite expanding the top floor units to two floors, this extra work snuck through under the ruse of ADU and seismic permits. One tenant who has lived in her apartment for 41 years would have had her exterior wall removed, deck cut in half and apartment made smaller to accommodate the standard open space requirements for an ADU.

The Tenants Union pointed out to the assigned planner early on that this would force the tenant out for up to 18 months (according to the architects) and that ADUs for future tenants would be gained at the expense of existing tenants with affordable rent. Despite this, the planner recommended approval of the project to the planning commission. After the DR presentation and testimony from the tenants facing displacement, the commissioners voted unanimously to overrule the recommendation and sent the architects back to the drawing board with several commissioners objecting to ADUs that disrupt existing tenant’s lives.

Ironically, the Planning Code prevents owners who have formally evicted tenants in the past 5-10 years from being able to apply for ADUs. But by only looking at past eviction history, the same legislation inadvertently allows owners to evict tenants upon obtaining their ADU permit.

The Tenants Union has three more DRs in the pipeline with tenants of 30 or more years in all three buildings. Each property was purchased by a real estate agent or investor who tried buyouts within months of the purchase and never intended to live there. If tenants are allowed to be evicted by the permit process, the city will be sending a signal to future speculators that all occupied housing is fair game.

The Planning Commission is tasked with the stewardship of San Francisco’s General Plan but often gets bogged down in technical rulings based on design features rather than the bigger picture of a housing policy that benefits city residents. We argue that the planning department’s assertion of technocratic detachment violates the directives passed by voters with 1986’s Prop M.

The importance of the General Plan and Proposition M

California law requires every city to develop and adopt a General Plan. The General Plan is a comprehensive, long-term policy document that enunciates a community’s values related to physical development. San Francisco’s Planning Code is among the chief set of rules for planners to implement the General Plan.

Both San Francisco’s General Plan and Planning Code are unwieldy and have been that way for decades. People started noticing that, like the Bible, you could find something in either document to support or oppose just about any proposal. And so, in 1986, linked with a measure that to this day limits annual office growth in relation to housing production, seven general plan policies were adopted by voters through Proposition M to clarify application of General Plan policies.

Proposition M clarified that when policies conflict, decisions should favor the preservation of housing, small businesses and neighborhood character.  Housing and tenancy protection are key to the implementation of Proposition M.

Historically, one of the most important General Plan policies in San Francisco has been Objective 3 of the Housing Element: “Protect the Affordability of the Existing Housing Stock, Especially Rental Units.”

Some 64 percent of San Franciscans are renters. And with approximately 172,000 units, the city’s rent-controlled stock is by far the largest supply of affordable housing, dwarfing the number of below-market-rate, public, or non-profit housing units. It is for this reason that the Tenants Union has long been laser-focused on pushing our elected officials to take the preservation of private rental stock seriously when it is much more glamorous to be at ribbon cutting ceremonies for shiny new buildings.

When the city allows a rental unit to be doubled in size it is not protecting the affordability of rental units nor creating new housing. If a tenant is occupying that unit, as Carl Jensen was, it is obvious the tenant will have to be evicted to complete the work approved by the permit. Carl Jensen would have been at best displaced for a year and a half and at worst never been able to move back.

When the city allows landlords to evict tenants by obtaining a permit to install ADUs, the city is not protecting the affordability of existing rental units. Eviction may occur because the ADU permit requires walls in the units of existing tenants to be moved – as it did in the Grand View proposal. Or eviction may be required because the ADUs require such extensive structural upgrading that all occupants are affected. Or, worse yet, the seismic or ADU work may not really even require existing units to be vacated but “extra” and unnecessary work is thrown into the permit to force tenants out.

The city is not living up to its legal obligation under the General Plan and Proposition M to protect rental housing. It is too easy for planners unfamiliar with the details of the Rent Ordinance to pass off evictions and other consequences of permit approval as out of their domain.

Unscrupulous speculators make their living by increasing profits without regard for those who already inhabit the buildings they have purchased. If anything, existing tenants are seen as a deterrent to profits rather than as cherished city residents who have contributed to a property’s value and to San Francisco’s social fabric. We urge our city officials to acknowledge the on-the-ground reality that tenants are facing and reconcile department procedures with the objectives of the General Plan.

Jennifer Fieber is staff at the San Francisco Tenants Union. Mary Gallagher is an independent land use consultant who can be reached through her website: www.mgaplanning.com


  1. Thanks for your considered response. It’s hard to have an adult, fact based discussion on 48 Hills if one doesn’t toe the line with Tim Redmond.

    1. Why would the rent board deny more than a three month renovation
    eviction if the job will demonstrably take longer? Seems like that’s
    something that’s easy to prove and back up.

    The Rent Board is aware of the misuse of the temporary reno evictions. It is not easy to prove and backup as these things are subjective and often up to the whims of the contractor, especially during the current building boom and over-worked building inspectors.(construction often stops for 2-3 weeks awaiting an inspector to sigh off before proceeding.) The Rent Board generally does not approve more than 3 month temp reno evictions

    2. Why is your lawyer so sure of CH repeal? I believe a push for repeal just got shot down in Sacramento.

    Chui’s repeal legislation was never a serious piece of legislation. (it consists of one sentence of five words saving staff time.) It never had a chance of passing and was meant as an organizing tool for the initiative. Based on conversations with lobbyists, this was the plan all along. Chui tabled the bill without a vote to be able to bring it up in the next session to provoke more press. The LA guy funding the initiative was clear about this in 2015.

    This is a mid term election with low turn out. The repeal is meaningless to those it does not affect. Tenants in the Bay Area, LA, Orange County and San Diego have a HUGE concentrated interest to vote. It only takes 50%+1 Expect tenants in these jurisdictions to have a very large turn out.

    Even if your lawyer is so sure of CH repeal, how are they so sure of
    “immediately instituting vacancy control”? That’s even more
    controversial than CH repeal.
    REALLY? In SF you think that would be controversial? The Supes would enact vacancy control in one hot minute. They would have to politically. They would face recall and cat litter thrown in their faces if they didn’t.


  2. And this is why we need to worry about the market rent. Rent control doesn’t work for tenants who have to move.

  3. Of course Peter is going to take them off the market. I’ll do the same. The politicians and the populists electing them are going to get what’s coming to them; urban areas will be purged of low and middle-income renters and will become bastions of conservatism. Give it 20 years.

  4. Yes – you seem to want all the benefits of ownership, but without the investment, maintenance, or responsibility.

    I use “you” in the plural sense of course, as most renters seem to have that frame of mind.

  5. To be fair, I don’t think he’s trying to play the victim. I think he’s pointing out that these series of events are incentivizing him (or really anyone) to remove the units from the rental stock, which is the exact opposite of what the region/state needs. But that’s the discussion over Costa Hawkins and a ton of hypotheticals… Using seismic repairs as an excuse to Ellis is a long shot at rationalizing this, unless I’m missing something.

  6. Condo conversations have been banned/capped. So, just keep it to TIC (a far lesser form).

    BTW, when did rent stabilization morph into permanent housing?

  7. Yes, and believe me on the renter’s side. The article is clearly stating we need to to have protections in place, and they need to be followed. Jennifer is a super star.

    But old units need remodeling, and it should be included in this discussion. If there could be an incentive to have work done AND keep existing tenants (low interest loans perhaps), then that would be an idea. The incentive now is to not do any work until a tenant leaves.

  8. Perhaps I’ve exaggerated in saying a week, but I’m also not talking about a remodel. Something like mold remediation might take longer, but that is often because LL’s have been previously neglectful allowing the mold to become extensive. And a lot of LL’s want to do un-permitted work all the time, regardless.

    Also (and not in response to anything you said) of course there are situations when pipes burst or there is a fire, but this is not what the article is talking about. Maybe we should have mandatory regular inspections to prevent an ultimate need for major renovations that lead to tenant displacement.

  9. Good eyes, Zutsa. O’Tool is getting some bad advice from his lawyer. You can absolutely get extensions from the Rent Board. Given that Costa Hawkins failed to get out of David Chiu’s committee last year we can also be sure that mighty hammer of the CA Real Estate lobbyist will crush the CH repeal if it makes it to the ballot, spending untold amounts of money to do so. O’Tool wants to sound like a victim here–boo hoo! I’m being forced to Ellis Act! At quadruple my investment–and its all everyone elses fault.

  10. That’s about the same price Peter Owens paid for the multi-unit he bought and evicted Iris Canada from.

  11. I learned that lesson many years ago when I was owner move-in evicted. That gave me the incentive to sacrifice lifestyle to save to buy. And to sacrifice lifestyle to pay the mortgage. We all make choices in life.

  12. If you don’t allow landlords to upgrade their properties but simply maintain them, wouldn’t we have a situation like Cuba where people are maintaining 50-60 year old cars. Landlords should be able to improve their property and cover the costs of those improvements with increased rents. Otherwise there would be little incentive to improve the property.

  13. This is what I fear about Costa Hawkins repeal. Worded well. However, while the article is talking about similar situations, it’s clear that the authors are not intending to imply that all maintenance/renovation is malicious.

    A few things I find strange:
    1. Why would the rent board deny more than a three month renovation eviction if the job will demonstrably take longer? Seems like that’s something that’s easy to prove and back up.
    2. Why is your lawyer so sure of CH repeal? I believe a push for repeal just got shot down in Sacramento.
    3. Even if your lawyer is so sure of CH repeal, how are they so sure of “immediately instituting vacancy control”? That’s even more controversial than CH repeal.

    I get the risk of being a landlord. The scale is tilted in the tenants favor substantially and when you mix unexpected expenses and long-term rent controlled units we see a huge imbalance. However, that does not mean that landlords should have the ability to get around the eviction process. I am against expanding rent control but am also against antagonizing and uprooting those that have it now; they’re the lucky few, sure, but their livelihood shouldn’t be threatened by roundabout and legally questionable maneuvers. Not saying you’re “one of them” but I’d hope you’d be on the side of protecting tenants within reason from unscrupulous landlords as you seem like a reasonable person.

  14. I think I understand the difference between maintenance and improving the property or enhancement. In my single-family owner-occupied neighborhood there have been many enhancements that have increased the value of that home, like converting part of the basement to living space and generally upgrading everything. That also upgrades the neighborhood. What is wrong with a rental property owner upgrading his property to increase his income? It is business.

  15. Quickie maintenance adds to the pressure to do un-permitted work. You can’t remodel a bathroom in SF in a week .. unless you skip DBI.

  16. This landlord is the same as any looking to cash out, except cares more about rationalizing greed.

    The logic for removing the rentals is that the tenants are rich and will be fine SF. But those rentals will be gone for good.

  17. The “renoviction” problem is more wide spread than reported. Speculators and investors buy rent-controlled properties below market value because of the presence of long time tenants and then they turn around and use renovations as an excuse to evict them. We have a case on Church Street in Noe Valley where the investor has bought a 5-unit and 3300 square foot building for $1.4 million dollars only six months ago and shortly after, he’s threatened ALL 5 units with Ellis Act eviction but because he’s already gotten the permit for “soft story” foundation work, his tenants feel cornered in that if Ellis Act doesn’t get them, the foundation permit will. In this case, the foundation retrofit permit has given an extra edge to the new owner to evict his tenants.

  18. My landlord did a complete soft-story retrofit in a 1920s apartment building that involved shoring up the entire foundation. It took some months but nobody had to move out for it.

    “My tenants are high income earners and can afford to rent elsewhere easily…”

    Think of those who can’t.

  19. Generally you’re right but eventually something is going to go wrong in an apartment that will force someone out for a while. Especially if we’re talking over the course of 20-30 years. One thing leads to another in old buildings and if the floors need to be opened up for a few weeks, then put back together, then opened up for a few more because a contractor fucked up, then that’s just the way it goes. And I think that’s fine, so long as the tenants are given reasonable accommodations and the landlords aren’t intentionally delaying or exploiting another loophole.

  20. I think there’s a huge difference between maintenance and what the authors are talking about here. If there isn’t a way to differentiate on paper (and thus be more lenient to the landlord for maintenance) then there should be. Of course there will be scenarios where a tenant is displaced due to necessary maintenance; these buildings aren’t the pyramids of Giza. But when a landlord exploits it there should be recourse. If there’s foul play it should be proven and there should be consequences. Loopholes should be closed.

  21. Excellent article. I wasn’t aware of the loopholes and can totally see landlords using this to skirt around the eviction process. The whole “delay until they give up” thing sounds very plausible to me, especially if a tenant is paying very little because they’ve been there for over 15 years. The incentive is there. I’m curious to learn more as this is mostly new to me, so bravo to the authors and extra thanks to the SFTU for all they do for tenants in need. Many of us may disagree about the genesis of and the solution to the housing crisis, but I think the vast majority of the area would agree that tenants rights should remain strong and that exploitative landlords should be punished.

  22. Kinda find it hard that you can’t dig a little deeper than superficial. Yes, property owners must at least get up to code first and that is of no-fault to the renter. Owner must pay the penalty for that.

    Now, if the unit doesn’t require any additional work or if the renter doesn’t require it then any renovation is really an enhancement. If the the owner wants to make it then it is on their onus. It is their investment not the renters whether they will benefit from it or not.

    For an owner to force an enhancement on a property so they can get the renter to pay for it is highway robbery, coercion and possible racketeering.

  23. It’s the owners responsibility to keep their building in good shape and in compliance. If they want to do major renovations that increase and enhance the property but not necessarily needed due to disrepair the onus must be on the owner, not the renter. Owner’s responsibility, solely and wholly. No passthrough.

    Noncompliance unrepaired maintenance is not the fault of the renter and deferring of that work is of no-fault to the renter. Owner’s responsibility, solely and wholly. No passthrough.

    If an owner cannot afford to do repairs and goes into noncompliance or excessive deferred maintenance then it is time to think about selling. Their business model and ability to run that business has failed.

    Yes, Folks, property ownership and management is a business. Business first over investment.

  24. Unintended Consequences

    I’m one of the landlords that are targeted in this article–not specifically but in the same situation. I must complete a voluntary (not soft story) foundation replacement and seismic renovation in order to save the building.

    I like my tenants and would like to keep them. The work, however, will make it impossible for them to stay during the structural work which will take 5 to 6 months. My tenants are high income earners and can afford to rent elsewhere easily but of course it would be a major disruption for them to move not to mention the temporary loss of a significantly below market rent..

    My attorney states that getting more than a three month temporary renovation eviction from the SF Rent Board is unlikely * In addition, she indicated that the potential Costa Hawkins repeal should now enter into my decision process as she sees the repeal initiative as having a good chance of passing. Needless to say, if it does the SF Supes will immediately institute vacancy control.

    I’m in the enviable position of being able to sell the property after completing the necessary structural work.

    Therefore, because of the Rent Board issues around temporary renovation evictions and the looming potential of vacancy control I will be doing an Ellis Act and taking the building out of the rental market permanently. (and exiting the landlord business permanently)

    *Note that this is a “voluntary” seismic renovation not a mandated “soft story” only because of the number of units. The need for this voluntary work is actually more acute than most mandated soft story work which is preventative. The Rent Board is more lenient on mandated soft story projects.

  25. I think a lot of commenters like PaxSF are confused about building maintenance. Proper maintenance does not require a tenant to move out for more than a week, if at all. I don’t know of many homeowners who have to move out when they make repairs, only when they do a major renovation. So, an apartment is no different.

  26. This bureaucratic bullshit has to stop that mayors going back for generations have turned blind eyes to under the intimidation of department heads. It is high time that the city be a city and not a set of siloes that circumvent the structure to act independently. Department heads work for the CEO, the mayor, not the other way around. If this interim mayor has any spine, it would bode him well to do so just in the name of what’s right and just.

    If there are laws that say something applies it must apply to all agencies and departments equally and responsible. They shouldn’t just pay attention to the code that is their namesake. And, if they continue to do so then the laws that exist elsewhere must be referenced in their own code as applicable to whatever they think their limits of application are so they know there are conditions contingent to the work and decisions being made by them. Nonetheless, they also have the responsibility to notify another department whom already has jurisdiction if an action, violation or otherwise occurs. That is the current law.

    Dept heads, it’s time to buck up or get out.

  27. Being one of the co-authors, I can assure you Jennifer and I were not writing about preventing a landlord from maintaining a building. Having been a landlord for 30 years and a planner working on remodel projects for just as long, I can say with experience evictions aren’t required to maintain a building or seismically upgrade a building. And that is the point — both can be accomplished and are accomplished by many owners all the time. Brian T’s list is a perfect example — asbestos abatement, upgrading electrical and seismic upgrade — do not require displacement. Add to that list sprinkling installation, new windows, new bathrooms and kitchens. None of it requires more than several weeks of truly temporary displacement and most decent landlords plan such work without any displacement at all.

    In no real world does preventing tenant displacement equate with creating slum housing. But in the world of maximizing profit without concern for General Plan policies or basic decency to tenants, the false argument that you must choose one or the other prevails.

  28. What happens is the knob and tube gets repeatedly spliced into over time, and subsequently has to sustain an increased load. Simultaneously, kitchen and bathroom loads have drastically increased in general.

    I guarantee you the mission/22nd building had electrical ‘upgrades’ done in our lifetime — just not done properly. Many sub-panels would’ve gone in over the decades. Any building that hasn’t had a permit pulled in over 25 yrs is in trouble. It’s been hacked without an inspection.

  29. That was cause of the fatality. But the fire started because of the old electrical system that had not been updated in your lifetime or mine. It was institutionalized decay, or in other words, a progressive utopia.

  30. I’ve been begging for some maintenance. You don’t have to do seismic and asbestos work, unless the project exceeds specified percentages.

    Once a project hits full rehab (as opposed to light remodel), then the landlord likely wants everyone out. That’s when they go TIC, and then onto condo conversion.

    Fixing stuff is fine if it doesn’t require displacing a tenant.

  31. You’re a fountain of knowledge on housing. Ever think about running for D5 supervisor? 2019 could be your year.

  32. The Mission/22nd fire was extreme negligence. The fire alarm system was not active. No excuse for that.

  33. It would be useful to have the number of these types of evictions and where, to see the scope of the “problem.” It would not be a good policy to discourage improvements to the housing stock, which should be beneficial to the City overall. As with anything, some people may be inconvenienced. If you don’t own, you have no guarantees. I would assume tenants on Upper Noe Valley are not poor and, if long-term tenants, have benefited financially from rent control. They should have made plans for the eventual loss of their unit. That is the nature of renting. It may be that they will need to pay more for less to stay in the neighborhood. Or they have the option of moving to a less upscale neighborhood.

  34. Yes, of course. We must not allow property owners to maintain their buildings until they are almost uninhabitable Fixing things is worrisome. /s

  35. The article does not provide data to put the issue into a context. Forty years is not the norm. You can always find someone harmed by any policy and extreme examples. Do we really want to make it more difficult to upgrade properties. Allowing a neighborhood to become a slum may harm many more people.

  36. It is a dilemma. People object to living in squalid conditions but don’t want landlords to improve their property. It may be they will need to move someplace that is more affordable. Many people make sacrifices of space and environment to live in the City. Leaving the City often means an improvement in their standard of living. If one chooses to live in San Francisco one must accept the consequences. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  37. This is a bit of a double edged sword. If a tenant has been in place for 30-40 years as talked about in this article, it is very likely that the unit needs major upgrades that require the tenant to move out — asbestos abatement, knob and tube wiring, seismic/structural work, etc.

    The flip side is that many landlords instead just defer maintenance, leading to tragedies like the beautiful old building at 22nd and Mission that burned to the ground because the wiring was so old. It’s extremely expensive and difficult to temporarily evict all the tenants so upgrades can be done efficiently all at once. Upgrading apartments one by one is vastly more expensive and in cases like asbestos or structural work, just not possible.

  38. Thanks for this article. Capital Improvement evictions of all kind are very worrisome. There should be very close scrutiny of any such proposals and approval should be given only when work is required to make a unit or building inhabitable.

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