Bill Would End City Condo-Conversion Restrictions

by Randy Shaw on April 22, 2004

Having failed to weaken local condominium-conversion limits at the local level, landlords have turned to their favorite strategy: state preemption. Democrat Joe Canciamilla’s AB 2175 would effectively end conversion limits in California, with hundreds of thousands of tenants losing their homes.

Landlords have spent a small fortune in recent years on ballot measures to overturn local condo restrictions. With voters in Santa Monica and San Francisco rejecting such measures by large margins, landlords have chosen to bypass local control and seek state pre-emption.

This week, Democratic Assemblymember Joe Canciamilla of Contra Costa County rewrote AB 2175 to effectively preempt all local condo-conversion restrictions.

Under AB 2175, local governments could do little more than require that condo converters first offer to sell units to their tenants at fair market value. Since 95% of San Francisco tenants cannot afford to purchase their apartment even if they wanted to, this “protection” for tenants is meaningless.

The bill also only allows landlords to convert one building a year, and prevents condo conversions of substandard properties (which are rarely targets for converters).

That’s about it for the city’s power to protect its rental housing stock. Once a building is converted, and owners trade properties with each other, all the units become exempt from rent control. The longterm tenants can be readily evicted, and replaced with new tenants paying market rent!

AB 2175 would join the Ellis Act (which preempts local just cause eviction laws) and Costa-Hawkins (which preempt local rent controls on vacant units, condos, single family homes and newly constructed units) in the pantheon of statewide assaults on tenants rights.

The danger of AB 2175’s passage will come next year. Currently, John Burton runs the State Senate and makes sure that anti-tenant bills are killed.

But Burton will be forced out of office in December due to term limits, and there could well be a new Senate leader unwilling to oppose the real estate industry. Currently, those leading in the race to succeed Burton-Oakland’s Don Perata, Martha Escutia, and Contra Costa’s Tom Torlakson -are no sure things on tenants rights. Perata endorsed Oakland’s winning “Just Cause” initiative in 2002 and Torlakson has supported minor reforms to tenant security deposit laws. But neither are surefire obstacles to anti-tenant legislation. Escutia may be the frontrunner, and she is not seen as strong on tenants’ issues.

Carole Migden will assume Burton’s San Francisco Senate seat. She should be urged to only support a Senate leader who is committed to stopping AB 2175.

Historically, the real estate industry has controlled the Assembly and anti-tenant bills were stopped in the Senate. But if Escutia replaces Burton, defeating AB 2175 will likely depend on Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles.

Nunez may be the most progressive Assembly speaker in modern California history, and can be counted upon to fight for tenants rights. San Francisco Assembly member Mark Leno will certainly help Nunez fend off the condo conversion bill, but it will take statewide tenant organizing to defeat it.

Powerful real estate interests proved with Costa-Hawkins that they will push their destructive legislation year after year until victory. AB 2175 would be the their ultimate victory, and the ultimate triumph for those seeking to replace the Bay Area’s elderly and middle-class tenants with upscale condo-owners.

Beyond Chron editor Randy Shaw can be reached at

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