All tenants deserve fair notice if they could lose homes

San Francisco is suffering a major housing crisis. Renting a home today on the housing market at current prices is nearly impossible for many residents.

Now, imagine the home you have lived in for 20 years turns out to be an illegal unit. Now further imagine that the owner of the building has decided to “legalize” by removing your unit from the building and you find this out only when your landlord delivers an eviction notice.

How could this happen?

Turns out that it happens more often than you think.

As the tenant representative on the Building Inspection Commission, I learned that our codes treat tenants in “unpermitted” units differently than all other tenants. When property owners take action to demolish a legal unit, tenants receive a required notice early in the process, but when that same property owner takes action to demolish an illegal unit, tenants do not receive notice. This loophole exists in both the Building Code and the Planning Code. Instead, tenants in illegal units first receive notice of a building permit to remove their units when they’re handed an eviction notice.

I immediately notified the Board of Appeals of this unequal treatment who, in turn, penned a resolution to the Board of Supervisors urging them to correct this problem.

Supervisor Scott Wiener immediately introduced legislation to correct this loophole. His much needed change went to the Board of Supervisor’s Land Use and Transportation Committee earlier this month, and if passed, will level the playing field and make sure ALL tenants are notified if the home they live in is being proposed for demolition or removal. This will give all tenants, regardless of the legal status of their homes, the same due process rights.

Our city has some of the most forward-thinking programs in the nation to offer building owners assistance to legalize secondary units and to improve habitability with code enforcement counseling. We are moving innovative incentives to encourage saving these in-law units and preserving them to supply much needed housing. It is too often the case these days that evicting tenants is part of the “solution” taken by landlords.

By noticing all tenants, there is early and ample opportunity to introduce landlords to the programs available to them that encourage legalizing these units without evictions.

We need more efforts from our board to strengthen our code enforcement in housing and to increase incentives and options to avoid further loss of housing and increasing evictions. This legislation is an important step forward.

We should all support fair noticing of tenants.

Debra Walker is a commissioner and tenant representative of the Building Inspection Commission.

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