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Three things to know about warehouses and illegal spaces

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Since the tragic “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland in December, The City’s agencies have been responding to increased complaints about warehouse spaces. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

If you’re an artist or anyone else living in a warehouse or other illegal space in San Francisco, there are three things you need to know to protect your home.

Since the tragic “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland in December, The City’s agencies have been responding to increased complaints about warehouse spaces. The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in December calling for The City to make every effort to keep people in their housing while ensuring their safety. Many of our city leaders understand that the last thing we need in the midst of this housing crisis is for hundreds of artists and others to get evicted with nowhere to go.

Unfortunately, not everyone in city departments have acted in line with this resolution, and these inspections — especially those conducted by the City Attorney’s Office — have created an atmosphere of fear among people living in warehouses. While we understand these inspections are being conducted to protect lives, the reality is that it’s difficult to keep people safe when they’re too scared of losing the only homes they can afford to rent.

The first thing you need to know is that you probably have more rights as a residential tenant than as a commercial tenant, especially if your tenancy is under rent control and just-cause eviction protections. Even if you have a commercial lease and live in a warehouse, you could still be under rent control and/or just cause. This is important because it could help you fight to stay in your space and make the landlord bring it up to code, even though it’s illegal. You should seek the advice of a tenant counselor from one of The City’s tenants rights counseling services to determine if your space is protected under rent control and just cause.

Second, a verbal eviction notice of any kind is not legal. Eviction notices must always be in writing and, if you’re under rent control, must contain one of the 16 just causes outlined in the rent ordinance (list available at www.sftu.org/justcauses). No matter what your landlord or any city inspector tells you, this written notice is required under state law.

Third, city agencies cannot evict you. City inspectors can issue notices of violation, but these are not eviction notices. They are notices that require the landlord to perform certain repairs or upgrades to make the space safer or more habitable. Even the Fire Department’s “order to vacate” is not an eviction notice. It means the place is unsafe, which should be of grave concern, but a Fire Department notice, by itself, does not mean that you have to leave.

Seeking advice from a tenants’ rights counselor or an attorney is highly recommended because every circumstance is different, and you want to tread carefully and know all of your options before you decide to proceed.

If your space is illegal (or unauthorized for residential use) and it’s cited by the Department of Building Inspection, the landlord should be given two choices: legalize the unit or apply for a permit to demolish. The permit application kicks in a change-of-use hearing at the Planning Commission.

The landlord cannot evict unless he or she gets a permit and includes a copy of it with the written eviction notice. A hearing will be scheduled at the Planning Commission, which you can attend. In fact, it’s important that you bring all the tenants in your space to explain to the commissioners that you will be displaced and have nowhere to go in this current outrageously high rental market. If your unit is rent-controlled, that is something else to stress.

Finally, here’s a quick list of free tenants’ rights counseling services you can contact for help:

Housing Rights Committee (counseling available in English, Spanish, Chinese and Russian), 1663 Mission St., Ste. 504, (415) 703-8644

San Francisco Tenants Union (counseling available in English), 558 Capp St., (415) 282-6622

Causa Justa (counseling available in Spanish and English), 2301 Mission St., Ste. 201, (415) 487-9203

Being informed is power.

Deepa Varma is director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. Tommi Avicolli Mecca is counseling director of the Housing Rights Committee.

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