About 8% of adults in California are considered "housing insecure" right now, according to an ongoing U.S. Census survey. That's more than 1.1 million people who are "not current" on rent or mortgage payments. And roughly 126,000 of them live in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.
While state and federal rules are temporarily protecting some tenants from being evicted – on Jan. 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an agreement to extend California's current eviction protections through the end of June, 2021 – many still face the question of how to pay rent now or in the coming months.
With them in mind, KQED talked to seasoned tenants' rights attorney Joseph Tobener, longtime Los Angeles landlord Mike Werner and Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco Executive Director Fred Sherburn-Zimmer for their advice on how best to negotiate down rent.
"I think it would be foolish for any tenant not to ask for their rent to be lowered right now," Sherburn-Zimmer said.
Research Rent in Your Neighborhood
When it comes to negotiating your rent, it's important to do your homework about comparative rents in your area.
While there has been a lot of noise in the news about tech workers fleeing the Bay Area and causing rents to fall — sometimes by as much as 35% — that data only tells half the story, Tobener said.
"Here’s the biggest misconception people have right now: that housing is scarce and rent is dropping," he said. "That’s not universally true."
Instead, he said, vacancies are often concentrated in "those sky-rise apartments" in places like downtown San Francisco. Plummeting rents in a city's pricey urban cores can make it look like rent is dropping more than it is in, say, San Francisco's more moderately priced Sunset District.
So Tobener recommends carefully surveying the local rental market when preparing to negotiate with your landlord.
You can look up local rents by ZIP codes on Zillow, among other online services.
Werner, the Los Angeles landlord, said to make sure when looking up comparison prices to consider various factors. One of his tenants, for instance, lived in a luxury one-bedroom unit overlooking a beach, but "they compared it to an apartment blocks away that looked down onto an alley. Not all one-bedrooms, even on the same block, are created equal," he said.
Most tenants make the mistake of only mentioning their personal hardships, Tobener said. And that is rarely persuasive, at least at first.
"The tenant needs to be ready to talk from a landlord's perspective," Tobener said, which starts by knowing the cold, hard numbers.
Negotiate in Writing
One of the most common mistakes Sherburn-Zimmer sees is for a tenant to accept a landlord's rent-break offer verbally, only to have the landlord subsequently waffle on the specifics of the deal.
"Get everything in writing," Sherburn-Zimmer said.
If you do make a deal verbally, it can help to send a follow-up email saying something like, " 'We talked on the phone yesterday. Thanks for agreeing to A, B and C!' If you don't do that afterward, it doesn't matter what you agree to," Sherburn-Zimmer said.
There are other frequent mistakes, too, like signing agreements that are too complicated to understand without a lawyer, feeling pressure to agree to something right away or simply packing up and leaving without exhausting all rental protection options.
It's also good to start the negotiation process early, as it can take months.
Additionally, Werner, the landlord, recommends keeping the negotiations cordial if possible, remembering that many landlords are facing mounting losses themselves.