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SF tenant advocates aim to eliminate landlord incentives that trigger evictions

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Tenants at an apartment building at 701 Hampshire St. in Potrero Hill are worried that planned renovations at the building, which will require tenants to temporarily vacate, are part of a larger effort to evict the building’s residents. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A week before Christmas, Linda Morales spotted a bright orange notice from the Planning Department taped to the side of her Potrero Hill apartment building.

The notice at 701 Hampshire St. informed tenants of planned renovations by the building’s landlord.

The plans include adding a fourth story to the six-unit apartment building — increasing its height from 26 feet to 37 feet — and removing five ground-floor parking spaces to make room for two additional residential units.

Because the renovations are substantial — and because the apartment building’s new owner has attempted to evict a tenant there in the past — Morales said she fears she may have to vacate her home while the building undergoes alterations.

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The proposed construction of a new fourth story would expand two existing units above her home to create two-story apartments, and would indeed require the temporary eviction of the building’s tenants, landlord Mark Colwell confirmed with the San Francisco Examiner.
Morales, who has lived in her rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment for more than 32 years, has no plans to leave.

“Where am I going to go?” she said.

The proposed renovations meet the Planning Department’s code requirements. Unless the building’s tenants pay $598 by Jan. 18 to file for a discretionary review — the intervention would entitle them to a public hearing before the Planning Commission prior to the Planning Department’s approval of the project — a permit to begin construction to the building will be issued.

Citing a number of cases in which evictions for renovations to residential buildings have been used to displace tenants permanently, tenant advocates are urging the Planning Department to create directives around considering existing tenancies when approving landlords’ applications for adding units and when permitting major alterations.

The advocates allege the process currently ignores the existence of any tenants at risk of eviction, and has led to the exacerbation of “renovictions” that turn into legal evictions permitted for capital improvements.

“We are seeing these cases more and more on our radar. Often, the tenants are just told [by the owners] that they have to move out,” said Jennifer Fieber, the political campaign director for the San Francisco Tenants Union, who will be filing the discretionary review on the part of the tenants at 701 Hampshire St. as the fee is waived for tenant advocacy groups.

“This is not a good use of my work time,” wrote Fieber about the discretionary review process in an email directed to Planning Director John Rahaim.

Landlords are entitled, and often required, to renovate their properties, and evictions for capital improvements are legal but must be reported to the San Francisco Rent Board once permits are obtained. The Rent Board does not maintain records on how many tenants actually return to their units following temporary evictions for renovations.

City planners are not tasked with vetting residential buildings for existing tenancies when approving permits for renovations, Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi confirmed.

“While concern over evictions and tenant displacements are real and understandable, the Planning Department does not enforce the tenancy and rental regulations,” the Planning Department wrote in an email that Fieber shared with the Examiner.

If a project is code-compliant, a planner wrote, “At the Planning Staff review level, I do not have the authority to deny a building permit application for an addition or renovation on the basis of tenancy.”

The renovations at 701 Hampshire St. come as part of a law meant to add rent-controlled units to The City’s housing stock by incentivizing San Francisco landlords to turn underutilized spaces in buildings pegged for seismic retrofit work into additional residential units.

In response to growing housing affordability issues, regulations were passed locally in 2014 allowing accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to be added to buildings undergoing both mandatory and voluntary seismic retrofit work in the Castro District.

Two years later, those regulations were expanded to allow ADUs citywide. ADUs added to rent-controlled buildings are also subject to rent control.

“The City allows us to add more rent-control units, and we are taking advantage of this,” said Colwell, who works as a real estate agent with Redfin. He purchased the Hampshire Street building two years ago and said it’s in need of seismic retrofitting.

“[The tenants] can’t stay there while we replace the foundation,” he said. “They have the right to return. We are just doing what The City requires.”

Jennifer Fieber, political campaign director for the San Francisco Tenants Union, says her organization has seen more and more cases of “renovictions” in The City. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The Planning Department is currently reviewing 269 permit applications for ADUs — in 2017, it received 616 applications for ADUs and permitted 309. That’s up from previous years: In 2016, 384 applications were filed and 192 were permitted; in 2015, 27 ADUs were permitted out of 41 applications.

But Fieber said that, similarly, advocates such as herself are more often tasked with supporting rent-controlled tenants facing evictions at properties where permits for ADUs have been issued.

The Tenants Union does not oppose ADUs.

“Accessory dwelling units [are] a good thing, but [The City] expedited the review process to create more housing,” said Fieber, adding that this process does not include vetting for existing tenancies.

In some cases, landlords are capitalizing on this purported loophole in the permitting process to evict long-term, rent-controlled tenants, she said.

“The planners are kind of hamstrung by whatever the rule book says. So they put [a] rubber stamp according to these eight points they have to follow,” she said. “The question that is not on there is whether tenants will be affected. We are trying to change that.”

Advocates have called for policy changes for some time.

“They could have a policy where they don’t approve projects that will involve the displacement of tenants or limitation of rent-control units. Why not have a blanket policy?” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, of the Housing Rights Committee. “We asked before but there is a resistance to … an [outright] prohibition of demolishing rent-controlled units.”

Requests for comment on the need for such policy changes to the Planning Department’s director, Rahaim, and Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district includes Potrero Hill, were not returned by press time.

In cases such as 701 Hampshire St., tenant advocates point out that the lack of accountability to existing tenants on the part of the Planning Department’s permit approval process can put tenants at risk of eviction.

According to Fieber, the Tenants Union is working on filing discretionary reviews for ADU permits at three more buildings in an effort to prevent the displacement of long-term tenants — each having lived in their buildings for more than 30 years. Each property, she said, was purchased by a real estate agent or investor who “tried buyouts within months of purchase and never intended to live there.”

Another tenant at 701 Hampshire St., who requested to remain anonymous, said Colwell attempted an owner move-in eviction months after purchasing the building in 2016, which was later rescinded. On another occasion, he allegedly served the tenants with three-day eviction notices for failing to pay rent on time, although the tenant claimed that the rent checks were stolen from their mailboxes.

Colwell told the Examiner he had earnest plans to move into the building.

But the tenant said that Colwell made his intentions clear almost immediately after taking over the building.

“He verbally told everybody that he will either do an owner move-in, or Ellis Act us or buy us out,” the tenant alleged. Other units that have been vacated voluntarily since Colwell bought the building have been rerented at significantly higher rents, according to the tenant.

The tenant shared concerns that the capital improvement eviction is the only legal avenue to evict the remaining rent-controlled tenants at 701 Hampshire St.

“If tenants are allowed to be evicted by the permit process, The City will be sending a signal to future speculators that all occupied housing is fair game,” Fieber said.
The Tenants Union is also seeking to extend the length of time in which landlords are mandated to cover tenants’ relocation costs beyond three months.

Landlords currently have no incentive to complete construction within that time frame, leaving tenants to shoulder relocation costs on their own after three months, according to Fieber.

“Beyond three months tenants are on their own to cover costs … as they hope to reoccupy their apartments, as is their right,” Fieber said. “Owners have an incentive to drag on construction and hope the tenant simply gives up their right to reoccupy.”

The issue has also been a hot button with the Planning Commission.

“We really need to get our arms around it. The only process we have right now for any level of review, especially if [a project] is code compliant, is the DR process,” said Planning Commission Vice President Dennis Richards.

Richards added that the commission is seeing “more DRs brought to us by the Tenants Union.”

“We all know that if the tenants leave the building for the construction and only get three months worth of living or moving expenses — construction never takes three months — they are never coming back.”

He added that capital improvement evictions are “a good ploy for someone to buy a property and evict tenants.”

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