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SF State serves rent increases, eviction notices to faculty and student residents

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Sarah Johnson is being evicted from her San Francisco State-owned apartment after retiring from her faculty position. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

When Sarah Johnson decided last year to leave behind a career at San Francisco State University that spanned three decades, she did not think that her retirement would come at the cost of her home.

Four years ago, Johnson moved into a one-bedroom apartment in University Park South, which contains 145 SF State-owned apartments located across the street from the main campus at 1900 Holloway Ave. Of those units, 51 that are set aside specifically for faculty and staff. Johnson hoped this would be the last move that she would have to make.

But four months after officially stepping into retirement last spring, the 68-year-old received a two-month eviction notice from University Housing informing her that she would have to move out by July 31, 2017 to “make room for other faculty and students.”

At a meeting held inside of SF State’s J. Paul Leonard Library Friday, about a dozen current and former faculty and staff members alleged a lack of transparency by SF State when it came to informing its tenants of their rental rights.

Believing that their rented apartments were subject to The City’s rent control laws, they spoke out against what they called a recent “policy swing” that includes both eviction proceedings against retired faculty and staff members and a proposed 34 percent rent increase for current tenants over the next six years.

With the help of tenant advocates, the faculty members are calling on the university to retract the rent increases for existing tenants, claiming that they were “misled” in their rental agreements. They are also urging SF State to halt evictions against retired faculty, staff and students who moved into the housing units “without proper disclosure” that they were subject to state rental laws.

Michael Bar, an associate professor of economics, said that up until last summer, he and other tenants of University Park North and South were under the impression that their homes were protected by City rent control regulations.

“They don’t tell incoming tenants that this property is vastly different from other local housing in the neighborhood,” said Bar, who has taught at SF State for 13 years. “In 2005, I had the choice to pick other housing. That choice was taken away from me.”

Bar moved into a two-bedroom apartment at University Park North, which contains 55 faculty and staff units next to the Stonestown Mall, in 2005, shortly after the properties were purchased by SF State.

At the time, Bar believed that the university housing was protected by rent control, as annual rent increases consistently coincided with The City’s allowed annual increases, which this year was set at 2.2 percent. For several years, Bar said that his rental agreement did not contain language to the contrary.

In 2009, a clause was added to Bar’s rental agreement stating that SF State, a state run institution, was not subject to The City’s rules and regulations, but Bar maintains he was kept in the dark.

“We did not spot this line [appear] in our contracts,” said Bar. “This change happened quietly.”

University Park North and South provide housing to some 1,370 students who are also affected by the policy changes.

San Francisco Rent Board Executive Director Robert Collins said that his agency has ruled in favor of City rent control protections for SF State “legacy tenants,” or tenants who were not faculty, staff or students but lived on property that was later acquired by the school.

Oscar Stewart, an assistant professor of management, was hired by SF State in 2016 and also moved into the faculty housing at that time. He alleges that SF State continues to offer below market-rate, subsidized housing as an incentive in faculty contract negotiations.

“It’s not a secret that SF State pays below market wages and because of that we all got explicit promises in our negotiation that we receive the option to move into housing of two particular features: below market rate and rent controlled,” he said, although it is unclear whether housing was promised in written contracts.

According to Bar, SF State tenants first found out about the changes to their lease agreements last summer, when letters were mailed to some tenants about the increases, which took effect in July 2017.

It was also at this time that Student Housing began actively evicting faculty, staff and students who have retired, resigned or graduated, according to Bar.

SF State spokesperson Mary Kenny said that beginning in 2011 the university communicated its implementation of a policy that requires university residents to vacate campus housing once affiliation with the school ends, adding that a demand for student housing “vastly exceeds supply.”

“Over the last five years, University Housing has had to turn away as many as 2,500 plus students on an annual basis due to lack of housing,” said Kenny, adding that SF State “has communicated clearly its exemption from local rent control for over a decade.”

But Johnson claims this policy was new to her because to date, it has not been included in her lease agreement.

“We were flabbergasted,” said Johnson, adding that she is aware of at least one other retired faculty member in the same predicament. “Had they told me that this would happen once I retired, I would have never moved in here four years ago. It was hard to find housing then but it’s really hard now.”

As the longtime director of the the university’s Early Childhood Education Center, Johnson helped build and expand the campus’ childcare facility, initiated a Bachelor degree program and secured some $7 million in grant funding for low-income student parents.

“I have been a name for SF State in early education,” said Johnson, who has been able to secure a lease extension until May 31. “I feel like we are being ignored, those of us who have dedicated so much blood, sweat and tears into our service.”

Ann Sherman, interim vice president and CFO at SF State, said that the university has a responsibility to prioritize current students.

Responding to Johnson’s claim that she was not notified of the school’s retirement policy, Sherman said: “she has had a year to find a place to live.”

Sherman said that notices about the rent increases were given at the time that “renewals are due,” adding that the school has followed state mandated notification procedures. She also pointed out that new faculty and staff are given $6,000 stipends in their first year to “land in San Francisco.”

“It was not anticipated that they would stay long term,” she said, adding that about one-third of incoming faculty “make other [housing] choices.”

Sherman said that SF State’s long term faculty tenants are “significantly under market rate.”

“A 5 percent rent increase translates to maybe $150,” she said.

But Bar said that he and many other SF State faculty members are unable to afford the proposed increases on current salaries.

“I am not retired, but this [increase] will mean that I either have to find a new job or a new home,” said Bar, adding that he viewed the rent increases as “the university basically saying, ‘we don’t want you here.’”

“You cannot imagine what it feels like going to work everyday with the notion that your employer is your enemy,” he said.

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