San Francisco is in the midst of a housing crisis. In the last five years alone, 40,000 tenants have faced eviction in the city. The majority of evictions are served on at-risk tenants — low-income, elderly, or those who speak English as a second language, if at all. Since Prop F passed in 2018, every tenant facing eviction has the right to an attorney. But we must do more to protect tenants against landlords—and their agents—who break the law.
People who are evicted generally face a huge rent hike if they choose to stay in the city or, most likely, they become displaced, either to other parts of the Bay or onto the streets. In San Francisco, 71 percent of the unhoused people were formerly housed in our city — evictions are a primary cause of increasing homelessness.
The most recent point in time survey found a 30 percent increase in the unhoused population over the last two years. And once people are homeless it is difficult and costly to get them off the streets. As with so many areas of policy, prevention is the most humane, least expensive and most effective approach to solving this problem. And the solution can come from an unlikely place: the district attorney.
Across our city, renters are subjected to a variety of illegal tactics by landlords and property managers. Frequently, tenants are evicted, officially, for owner or relative move-in, but instead a new, higher paying renter moves in. This criminal fraud is rarely prosecuted. Other tenants face unlawful evictions or threats of eviction; unlawful buyouts, where a buyout is coupled with a threat to evict; unlawful rent increases; harassment; habitability issues; unlawful entry; and more. Threatening a tenant is a crime that is virtually never prosecuted. Failing to properly maintain a building can have criminal consequences—as in the ongoing saga from the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Too often prosecutors wait until after a fatal fire to take action.
Though the law does not go far enough, tenants in San Francisco have meaningful protections against mistreatment by landlords and their agents. These protections, which flow primarily from the California Penal Code and San Francisco Administrative Code, are aimed at preventing the worst types of intentional abuses. But the laws are meaningless unless our officials have the courage and independence to enforce them. As district attorney, Chesa Boudin is committed to standing up for tenants for three main reasons: 1) Equal enforcement of the law demands it; 2) The housing crisis won’t be solved without it; and 3) The most vulnerable members of our community deserve it.
Boudin and the San Francisco Tenants Union have developed a comprehensive plan for the District Attorney’s office to increase enforcement of laws protecting tenants.
•Use provisions of the Administrative and Penal codes to prosecute landlords and property managers for breaking the law. Boudin has committed to using jail a last resort, and believes that principle should guide the District Attorney’s actions even in situations like these. But a criminal prosecution can do more than put someone in jail. And even the mere threat of prosecution may be a powerful deterrent to a landlord who consider civil judgments merely a cost of doing business.
•Hold unscrupulous landlords and property managers accountable when they commit criminal acts. Unlawful recovery of rental units, age discrimination, unlawful rent increases, certain forms of harassment, unlawful entry, and negligent/hazardous maintenance of buildings—these are just some of the crimes that will be prosecuted.
•Work closely with the city attorney to develop cooperative strategies to reduce the threat posed by unscrupulous landlords. The city attorney has won some impressive victories in this fight. For example, in 2015 the office filed a lawsuit against a San Francisco landlord who it alleged “waged a war of harassment, intimidation, and retaliation against her tenants.” The office won a $5.4 million dollar judgment and a five-year injunction against the landlord, requiring among other things that she use an independent property manager for all her San Francisco properties. That outcome is sufficiently protective that criminal charges would be unnecessary. But in cases where a civil judgment has been insufficient, the district attorney should step in.
•Work with SFTU and other tenant advocacy organizations to make tenants aware that they now have the right to a free attorney when facing eviction. This vital right to counsel, passed as Prop F in 2018, can only work if tenants are aware of their rights and know how to obtain legal counsel.
•A safer and more just San Francisco means more than just treating people with compassion, addressing the root causes of crime, giving victims a voice, and eliminating racism from the criminal justice system. It also means using the system to protect marginalized groups who have, all too often, been excluded from the benefits of the rule of law. Protecting tenants is critical to stemming the housing crisis, reducing the homeless population, and making San Francisco safer for all of us.
Chesa Boudin is a candidate for San Francisco District Attorney in the November 2019 election. Jennifer Fieber is on staff at the San Francisco Tenants Union.