Supes Committee Approves Tenant ‘Common Area’ Protections

by Alexa Tondreau on May 25, 2006

The movement to protect tenants’ rights gained critical ground Wednesday when the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee recommended that a tenant protection measure move forward. The proposal would alter the residential rent ordinance to clarify existing law and require landlords to prove just cause when severing services included with a rental unit. These services primarily relate to common areas, including access to garages and parking spaces, laundry facilities, lobbies, storage units, and yards. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi sponsored the measure, and Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin co-sponsored.

The meeting included testimony from nearly a dozen citizens citing personal experience with landlord abuse and harassment. Tenants recalled incidents in which landlords revoked their parking spaces without explanation as well as returning home to find personal possessions removed from storage and thrown out onto the street. By the end of the hearing, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell asked to be added as a co-sponsor of the measure. She stated simply, “It’s about fairness,” and her words seemed to accurately describe the rationale behind altering the existing law.

As it stands, section 37.2r of the residential rent ordinance does not specifically compel landlords to present just cause when rescinding services. A tenant’s recourse involves taking a landlord to small claims court or, more likely, applying to the rent board for a decrease in rent. But as Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenant’s Union points out, “People want the service that was promised as a part of the rental unit, not the money.”

For many, it seems that the rent decrease would never make up for the loss of services. Catherine Averill had lived in her apartment for eleven years when without notice a landlord evicted her from the use of the garage.

“This is not only a matter of convenience, but of safety as well,” said Averill. “I come home late several nights a week and have to walk home in the dark. There have been armed robberies in our neighborhood in recent months, making me all the more nervous.”

The ordinance would simply be a clarification. Just cause would be required from any landlord before facilities or services could lawfully be removed. Under no circumstances does just cause include the right of the landlord to restrict services as a means to remove tenants or in order to penalize them.

A reccurring scenario described by the public involved a landlord creating unlivable tenancy for a renter by withholding certain services. For example, a senior citizen whose access to the laundry facility has been denied may be unable to walk the several blocks to a laundromat. This tenant has no other option but to move, and the landlord is free to rent the unit to someone else at a higher price.

Several people at the hearing described their landlords using the power to take away important common area services as a means of control or punishment. One such tenant told the Board that the landlord “harassed tenants” by threatening to impose parking garage restrictions. Stating that this restriction would lead to “unbelievable hardship and the complete destruction of my quality of life,” the tenant asked to remain anonymous in this article for fear of the landlord’s retribution.

Supervisor Mirkarimi explained that the proposed ordinance would clear up any ambiguity in the legislation, thereby protecting tenants in the court of law as well. He said it acted to “close a loophole,” and ultimately would clarify any confusion in the courts.

Attorney Dean Preston from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic described a client whose parking space had been included in the initial rental agreement, but was unceremoniously taken away by the landlord. The client was offered back the use of the space for $350 per month. In small claims court, a judge ruled in favor of the landlord because of confusion over the law.

A voice of dissent came from the President of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco, David Fix, who said the ordinance was one more example of excessive regulation of the housing market and an attack on property rights. He quoted a figure of 10,000 housing units that had been kept off of the San Francisco market by the strict legislation and called for a more balanced approach to property control.

But the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee showed strong support for the change in the residential rent ordinance, moving the item forward for a vote on June 6.

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