Property

at 12:35 AM

When the telephone sounds at three in the morning, you know it's not good news. It took two rounds of rings to rouse my wife and me from deep sleep. The four-unit apartment building we own near San Francisco's Dolores Park was on fire. I threw on some clothes and jumped in my car. By the time I arrived firefighters had doused the blaze. No one was hurt, thankfully, but the unit where the fire started was a soggy, burned-out mess. Tendrils of smoke were imprinted on the bedroom baseboard of the flat above the burnt unit, where another one of our tenant's baby normally slept. Fortunately, the family was out of town.

The blaze was sparked by an unattended candle. If not for the fire department's quick response, the entire building would have been destroyed. The burnt-out apartment is uninhabitable, with more than $100,000 in repairs. The building's three other units will be subjected to construction dust and noise for upwards of six months, making them barely livable for weeks at a time. Yet, because of San Francisco's bizarre rent control laws, within a few days of the fire we handed the tenant who caused it an $8,000 check, to find a new apartment and restart his life.

A few months later, now more vigilant about the building's safety, we discovered that another one of our tenants had moved to Southern California. He was illegally subletting his rent controlled-apartment to two, three, maybe four other people. After initially denying his scam -- and securing legal aid from a local nonprofit to do so -- he finally copped to it. We paid him $7,500 for his troubles.

There's no easy way to maintain affordable housing in expensive San Francisco, particularly when government's ability to build homes is compromised by budget deficits. Even in the best of times, rent control is an awkward way to protect tenants, creating incentives for renters to stay where they are, even after they've outgrown their unit and degrading property owners' ability to pay for needed upkeep. But San Francisco politics have morphed the policy into a kind of tenant-owner profit-sharing arrangement, in which even dangerous or criminal tenants are entitled to cash payments for causing problems. Property, as asserted by a French philosopher, may be theft. But property owners aren't criminals. Here in San Francisco, it's time to stop treating us that way.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Moss.

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