SF tenant trying to fight massive rent hike, eviction

A landlord in Bernal Heights is facing widespread criticism over a massive rent increase at a previously rent-controlled property. And it’s not the first time the landlord’s family has used the loophole to force tenants in the neighborhood out.

On Saturday, Deb Follingstad, a tenant at 355 Bocana St., posted on her Facebook page a tenancy-terms change notice that she received, stating that her rent would increase from $2,145 per month to $8,900, and that the security deposit would increase to $12,500, effective May 5.

The Facebook post of the notice, which was served on March 2 to Follingstad by the attorney for building owner Nadia Lama, sparked considerable outrage on the site.

Lama transferred the title of the Bernal Heights house to one of her six siblings, then removed the bathroom and kitchen from the apartment downstairs, converting it to a “storage” space, according to Follingstad. The building thus became a single-family dwelling, and therefore is not protected under San Francisco’s rent-control law.

“For the last two weeks I have been trying to find anything that can make this illegal. Because it looks so absurd when you read it, seems that it must be illegal,” wrote Follingstad, who is looking for a new place to live.

The state Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act exempts single-family homes and condominiums built before 1979 from rent-ceiling limitation protections granted by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. Landlords argue that if an in-law unit is demolished, the unit becomes a single-family home and rent control does not apply. It’s called a constructive eviction by rent increase, said Joseph Tobener, a tenants-rights attorney at the Tobener Law Center.

“The really nasty ones, the landlord will demolish an in-law unit and then call it a single-family home and give that [a] big rent increase,” said Tobener, who added he has seen two other cases involving the Lama family in Bernal Heights.

In the first case involving a single-family home, the tenants decided not to sue. In the second case, Tobener acted as the attorney for Nina Gelfant and Gayla Worrell, tenants in a single-family home with an in-law unit. The defendants, Claudia Lama and Antoinette Lama, decided to settle in the case.

“What’s so outrageous about [Follingstad’s case] is that this family got sued and then they did it again,” Tobener said.

Nadia Lama and her attorney, Denise Leadbetter, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Constructive evictions by rent increase are “fairly common,” said Tobener, who said he has seen about 20 in The City in the last two years, particularly in the Richmond and Sunset, where there are many in-law units.

“There are a handful of landlord attorneys that are doing it in The City, advising their clients to do these rent increases,” Tobener said. “The fact that tenants-rights attorneys like myself are suing should deter the behavior, and I hope it does, but I haven’t really seen a reduction.”

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