Landlords Sue to Block San Francisco's Eviction Moratorium

A 'Rent Strike!' sign in the Mission District on March 31, 2020.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco's temporary eviction ban is under threat.

On Monday morning, just two days before rent checks are due, landlord and realtor groups filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court to suspend the city's temporary eviction moratorium.

That moratorium — the COVID-19 Tenant Protections Ordinance — halts evictions for nonpayment of rent from April through July, which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved in a 10-1 majority in early June to help tenants struggling financially due to coronavirus-related closures.

Although tenants must still ultimately repay the rent they owe, the law prevents landlords from evicting tenants who are unable to pay their rent checks during the pandemic. It also halts any late fees or interest.

But the groups who filed the suit — the San Francisco Apartment Association, the San Francisco Association of Realtors, Coalition for Better Housing and Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute — argue the eviction moratorium forces landlords to collect rent through civil claims or by hiring collections agencies, methods they say are costly and rarely successful.

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"This law, along with the closure of the court system, would allow renters to live rent-free from March 2020 to potentially September and beyond," said Noni Richen, president of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute, in a statement.

She added, "Property owners would have no legal recourse to recoup unpaid rent. Small owners are particularly hard hit by renters who cannot pay."

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed first declared an eviction moratorium in mid-March. The Board of Supervisors' legislation, which Breed signed Friday, extends that moratorium "indefinitely."

Supervisors say the need for eviction protections has only grown in recent months: Californians have filed more than 6.7 million unemployment claims since the start of stay-at-home orders in mid-March.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who led the effort to enact the moratorium, skewered the plaintiffs for threatening tenants.

"In a moment when people need to come together, it is despicable that landlord associations would go to court to push forward mass evictions," Preston said in a statement. "Let's get this straight, under our legislation a tenant is still obligated to pay their rent debt. All we are doing is taking eviction off the table."

He added, "Let's call this lawsuit what it is — landlords going to court to displace people who lost income due to COVID from their homes. They should be ashamed of themselves."

San Francisco City Attorney's Office spokesperson John Cote said, "This is a time when we should be looking out for each other, not trying to kick people out of their homes. We will continue to protect tenants and defend San Francisco’s law.”

The San Francisco Apartment Association said they surveyed landlords and property owners, who said 97% of renters have continued to pay their rent during the crisis.

But some smaller property owners are "particularly impacted and harmed" when tenants do not pay rent, they argued.

Even if the suit is not successful, it still puts tenants who don't pay rent in a precarious position, said Joe Tobener, an attorney at Tobener Ravenscroft LLP, a prominent San Francisco tenants law firm.

"I think the lawsuit is dangerous for tenants," Tobener said. "Anyone expecting to not pay rent and keep a rent control unit should be super cautious to rely on the law."

Tobener said his firm nets 200 new client calls a week, many from tenants who have not been able to pay rent during the pandemic.

"It's a big deal right now," he said, "because rent is due."