SF Landlords of Single-Family Homes Can't Triple Rent to Force Tenants Out, Court Rules

A 'For Rent' sign on a house in the Mission District of San Francisco on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Can landlords double, triple or even quadruple a tenant's rent just to force them to leave?

Not in San Francisco.

Landlord and realtor groups lost a lawsuit on Friday which was seeking to overturn a city law passed in January 2019. That law bars landlords of single-family homes from raising a tenant's rent to an exorbitant amount in order to "circumvent" eviction protections.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera hailed the decision as a win for tenants.

"It shocks the conscience to think a landlord would double or triple somebody’s rent to circumvent eviction regulations and force a tenant out. It’s predatory, and it’s not allowed in San Francisco," Herrera said in a statement. "I’m pleased we were able to protect San Francisco’s common-sense regulations that prohibit this dangerous ploy — particularly given the economic and health threats we’re all facing.”

The law, authored by San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen, says that any rent increase specifically intended to "defraud, intimidate, or coerce the tenant" into vacating a rental unit would qualify as tenant harassment.

Some tests of whether or not a rental increase constitutes harassment include rent increases "in excess of market rates for comparable units," or if a rent increase came within six months after a landlord tried to evict a tenant.

The San Francisco Apartment Association, the San Francisco Association of Realtors and the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute sued to overturn the rent-hike ban a month after it was approved.

The San Francisco Apartment Association could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear if they will appeal the case. The San Francisco Association of Realtors did not immediately return a request for comment.

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San Francisco can't impose rent control on single-family homes due to the state Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, but the city can mandate eviction protections.

In San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charles F. Haines's ruling, he argued the 2019 rent-hike law constitutes an eviction protection.

"While the conduct prohibited by the ordinance takes the form of a rent increase, in substance it is an eviction," Judge Haines wrote. His argument also mirrored Ronen's: "Plaintiffs point to nothing that indicates the Legislature intended to elevate form over substance in this way and allow the use of such artifice to evade applicable laws."

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While the various landlord and realtor groups suing did not comment on this development, individual landlords told the Board of Supervisors why they opposed the law in a December 2018 City Hall hearing.

Wendy Wong, from the San Francisco Coalition for Good Neighborhoods, said "we understand there are hardships for tenants, but you should know we also have hardship from the landlord side. There are so many harassment cases."

Especially in San Francisco, Wong argued, city leaders have been "extreme" in applying laws to limit the rights of small property owners, which often lead to "extremely expensive" lawsuits filed by tenants.

But another commenter at the 2018 hearing, Kyle Retzik, who was profiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, said real estate companies who were unknown to him bought his property and tried to evict him and his family.

After he fought the eviction legally and won, he said they immediately doubled his rent, which he framed as an effort to push his family out.

Joseph Tobener, a local tenant attorney, said Monday that he doesn't expect landlords will stop hiking rents to pressure tenants to leave. But he does think the newly won law will give tenants another way to fight back.