Tenant Debbie Nunez, who has lived in her apartment for more than 30 years, said landlord has not engaged in a real conversation with the tenant association. “I think we were just strung along a little bit,” she said. “There needs to be a dialogue.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tenant associations could get new leverage and protections

Tenants of Veritas, The City’s largest landlord, had organized themselves long before they formed an official association. As the coronavirus shut down dragged on, they made demands for San Francisco’s largest landlord to forgive unpaid rent caused by the pandemic.

But organizers say Veritas wouldn’t sit down with them, and didn’t tell them about the limited rent forgiveness plan it announced earlier this month.

Under legislation by Supervisor Aaron Peskin that is now in the works, however, landlords would be legally bound to engage in a negotiation process with a tenant association.

Peskin on Tuesday will ask the City Attorney to begin drafting legislation that codifies tenant associations and gives them teeth to negotiate with large landlords.

“This is not meant to be adversarial,” Peskin told the Examiner. “It is an encouragement of tenants in large buildings to organize, on the one hand, and an encouragement to large corporate landlords to honor and work with those tenants in an organized, structured way.”

Though the details are just forming, the local legislation would overall codify the right to form, join, and participate in tenant association activities, and protect them from retaliation. Tenant associations would be defined as a group of tenants who live in a to-be-determined number of units owned or operated by the same landlord with the purpose of improving housing conditions, amenities, or lease conditions.

Most significantly, landlords would be required to meet in good faith under a process the legislation will establish.

Lack of formal conversations about demands communicated multiple times during the emergency has frustrated Veritas Tenant Association members, of which there are more than a thousand. They’ve issued letters asking for 100 percent rent forgiveness and received some responses, but have not had a proper conversation with Veritas representatives, organizers say.

“I think it’s hugely disrespectful to their tenants,” said Debbie Nunez, a VTA member and San Francisco native. “They’ve made some signals that they were going to respect but, basically, I think we were just strung along a little bit. There needs to be a dialogue.”

The demands came before Veritas announced a rent forgiveness plan earlier this month, one that it said came out of talking to advocacy groups. Tenants would be forgiven for half of their missed rent payments from April through July, but only if they entered the plan by Aug. 31.

“Veritas is committed to the well-being of our residents and have many productive relationships and meetings with resident advocacy groups focused on a cooperative dialogue,” said Veritas spokesperson Juliana Bunim. “We recently implemented, to our knowledge, the broadest and most generous rent relief policy available by a large-scale manager to rental housing residents in the nation. We do this because of our commitment to our residents and San Francisco, and because it’s part of our values.”

VTA, on the other hand, said it was also not informed of the rent forgiveness plan Veritas announced earlier this month, which fell significantly short of its demands. Members warned that residents who agree to it may be stuck in a deal they can’t abide by and could be evicted for it.

Peskin’s legislation comes about a year after a statewide bill failed in its bid to protect tenant association organizers from retaliation. Senate Bill 529, authored by Tenants Together and sponsored by state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, would have offered protections to tenant organizations statewide by requiring landlords to provide written reasons for evicting an organizing tenant.

It initially included the right to withhold rent, which San Francisco cannot pursue on a local level.

But The City would take a different step in creating that communication process, one that proponents say could unclog the courts and lessen the burden on the San Francisco Rent Board — all while creating a model for other cities and, perhaps, the state.

“It’s potentially transformative,” said Brad Hirn, lead community organizer of Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, which organizes Veritas residents. “Tenants and tenant associations should have more options than the rent board or a lawsuit. It’s a tradition of bargaining and collective bargaining that has been a tradition at work, we’re just trying to bring it home.”

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