By Chantal Jolagh
By now, we all know the bad news about San Francisco leading the nation in high rental rates – but a recent increase in citywide evictions is making it even harder to find and keep a unit. San Francisco Rent Board statistics between March 2012 and February 2013 show a total of 1,757 eviction notices filed, a 26 percent increase from last year. Specifically, Ellis Act evictions increased 81 percent over the last year.
Currently, members of the Board of Supervisors and even the mayor are stepping in to try and help residents stay in the city. The mayor recently added $250,000 to the city budget for free legal advice and $700,000 for counseling services for tenants facing Ellis Act evictions.
But all the additional monetary help to city residents means nothing when you’re the one being served with an eviction notice. I know, because I came home recently to find one on my door. But you don’t have to go crazy just because you’re asked to leave. Here's some advice on dealing with eviction from someone currently in the trenches.
For the seven years I’ve lived in San Francisco, I've had amazing luck when it comes to housing. When I moved into my roomy Haight flat five years ago, my landlady said the house had been paid off and she charged cheap rent just for a little extra money. I could see myself staying here for a long time.
My housing wasn’t as secure as I’d thought, though. Three months ago, I came home to a foreclosure notice on my front door, saying that the building would be up for sale in a few weeks. Turned out the landlady lost the building due to a reverse mortgage.
Everything moved quickly after that notice appeared. I was bombarded daily by three real estate agents who contacted me by phone and email to offer me a buyout – a building sells for more if it is entirely vacant. I ignored their requests, because I was legally allowed to do so, and then the house was sold in a rush sale to a private owner. The new owner offered me two options: take a buyout and move out within two weeks, or stay and get evicted. I chose to stay and fight to keep my tenancy. Or at least to buy time – because you know how long it takes to find a decent place these days.
I quickly learned that there are many free and helpful services offered for tenants in San Francisco: The San Francisco Rent Board, The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Tenants Union. The volunteers at these organizations thoroughly explained my rights and those of the new building owner. I also had access to an eviction attorney, who helped me every step of the way, free of charge. After reading pages and pages of legal text, I was prepared and confident about my final decision to stay. Here are some good terms to understand as you make your decisions.
If you’re thinking about taking a buyout options from your landlord, consider this: Buyouts are typically anywhere from $5,000 on up, depending on how long you've lived at your place, if you have children, a disability, or however much the owner can spare out of their budget.
Free money sounds great, and some people take that route, like my downstairs neighbor. But you should also consider how long that money will last in this rental market. My neighbor ended up leaving the city because he couldn't afford anything else and his buyout money would’ve run out over time. The attorney I worked with recommends taking a buyout only if you're already planning on leaving SF or if you are given a really large amount of money. Regardless of your decision, before signing anything you should run the terms of any buyout contract or deal by a lawyer.
If you deny the buyout, like I did, then the owner can try and remove you through the Ellis Act or an owner move-in eviction (OMI). If you get threatened with eviction, check to see if your building is rent controlled. If your building is not rent-controlled, the new owner can increase your rent with proper 30 or 60 day notice, which might speed up the eviction process if you can’t afford it.
The Ellis Act is a state law that gives landlords the right to kick you out of your apartment. If you have lived in your place for 12 months or more and get hit with this one, you legally have 120 days to find a new home and receive $5,210.91 from your landlord. Protected tenants get a year with the Ellis Act and the extra money. According to the SF Tenants Union website, there are some terms, although a bit limited, under which you can fight Ellis Act evictions. However, this situation isn’t ideal for landlords because they are then required to take the building off the rental market for five years. They’re allowed to convert the building into a single-family home, or turn it into a condo or tenancy-in-common, which means selling the building off as single units. But there are restrictions on condo conversions. TIC conversions currently have little to no restrictions and TICs are exempt from tenant protections in the city's condo law. The Ellis Act isn’t preferred because of this, but it’s a guaranteed way to remove tenants from a building. If you’re hit with this, and it’s done legally with no wrongful eviction reasons (such as being evicted just because the landlord feels like it), then there aren’t many options left, other than discussing how much money you'll receive and how much time you have to leave.
An owner move-in eviction means that the owner plans on living in your apartment. If you live in a multi-unit building like mine, your landlord can invite other family members to occupy the other units. The tenant gets 60 days to move out and is also given relocation costs of a minimum of $5,207 if they have been living in the unit for at least 12 months. OMI evictions can be fought on the grounds that the landlord is not moving into the apartment in “good faith.”
In the end, I'm not sure what's going to happen with my house. But, like many of the people I know who are artists, musicians, writers, and recent college graduates, I can't afford to buy my own place. My other option is to play the Craigslist game and just hope that I can find a room to rent that's under $1,000 a month – but that's another slew of issues in itself.
If something similar happens to you, do your research and understand the options that are best for you and your roommates. There is a lot of information to be read, and I've only touched on the surface of things to consider here, so make sure to do your own thorough research. And when it comes down to you making a decision, I can't stress enough how important it is to get a lawyer, because there are so many free services out there, which helped so much in preventing me from going crazy. Everyone has a different situation, and there are a lot of loopholes in the law, so my story won't be exactly the same as yours.