S.F. considers boost to tenant protections

File photoDavid Campos

San Francisco is one of few cities with protections in place for tenants allegedly harassed by their landlords, but those without the money to sue are left with little recourse, local housing-rights advocates say.

About 80 percent of tenants who visit the Causa Justa :: Just Cause clinic in The City seek help specifically for harassment by landlords or situations where that is a factor, according to Maria Zamudio, San Francisco housing-rights organizer for the group.

And Supervisor David Campos noted there appears to have been an increase in the number of tenants reporting harassment citywide in recent weeks. In response, he introduced legislation Tuesday intended to “provide an avenue short of going to court,” which can cost both tenants and landlords thousands of dollars.

The proposed ordinance, co-sponsored by supervisors John Avalos, David Chiu and Eric Mar, would allow tenants to bring their harassment complaints to an administrative law judge with the San Francisco Rent Board for mediation or further proceedings. Hearings with the rent board are free.

“San Francisco has protections for tenants against harassment, but for many tenants those rights are currently inaccessible,” Zamudio said. “If they want to hold their landlord accountable, they need to file a lawsuit with the Superior Court. Immigrants — the majority of tenants we work with — don't have those resources.”

The legislation, she added, could help minimize the number of cases in which landlords are suspected of harassing tenants to pressure them into taking buyouts, often an issue with Ellis Act cases.

Campos agreed, saying harassment “is connected to the displacement that's happening.”

“It's connected to the housing crisis, the affordability crisis that we have,” he said.

In California, only Santa Monica has a tenant harassment ordinance with protections similar to those afforded in San Francisco, housing advocates say.

The City's ordinance includes more than a dozen actions considered harassment by a landlord, including failure to make repairs, entering a unit when it interferes with privacy, refusing to accept cash or a rent check after 30 days, asking tenants for their legal status or for Social Security numbers, and verbal or physical harm.

If the legislation clears the Land Use and Economic Development Committee and ultimately passes the Board of Supervisors, it would give teeth to protections tenants already have, Zamudio says.

Such added protection is “very rare,” said Debra Carlton, a spokeswoman for the California Apartment Association.

“The Rent Board acting in the place of a court is unheard of,” she said.

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