Tenant Advocates Cautiously Optimistic About Costa-Hawkins Repeal

Monday, November 6, 2017
Laura Waxmann
San Francisco Examiner

As the main breadwinner, Martha Simmons has always worked hard to support her family. But when her landlord raised the rent of the home she rents with her adult daughter, Charitie Bolling, who is disabled, Bolling’s husband and their three small children at 1140 Ingerson Ave., the 60-year-old was forced to take on three security jobs just to stay afloat. “Right now, I’m working seven days a week, 16 hours a day to keep roof over our head,” said Simmons, whose $3,300 rent was raised to $4,700 last year. Simmons moved into her Bayview residence more than a decade ago, with an offer to purchase the single-unit family home by her landlord. Eight years into her residency, Simmons offered her landlord, Dorothy Banks, $600,000 for the house — but her landlord wanted $900,000. “My landlord then met with me and told me she wanted to sell the house empty,” Simmons said. “If you sell it empty, you get a greater profit versus trying to sell it with occupants.” Last month, Simmons was faced with an ultimatum: Accept another increase that would set her rent at $5,200, or accept a buyout of roughly $3,000. “I did not accept. What can we do with that? Nothing,” she said. Joined by a dozen tenant rights advocates and supporters, Simmons stood in front of her home of 12 years on Friday chanting, “The rent is too damn high. Dorothy Banks is the reason why.” The group rallied in the hope that Banks, along with city and state officials, will lower Simmons’ rent and allow her and her family to stay. As it currently stands, the rent increase is completely legal. Banks did not return requests for comment by press time. The Costa Hawkins Rental Act exempts certain types of properties from local rent control ordinances, namely single-family homes and newly constructed units. Costa Hawkins also provides for vacancy decontrol, meaning it comes with “built-in” incentives for landlords to remove tenants from units, according to San Francisco tenant attorney Scott Weaver. “When [the original] tenant of a unit moves out, the landlord is free to charge as much rent as they want in a vacancy decontrol setting,” Weaver said. This provision in particular has contributed to the loss of rent-controlled units throughout The City and has accelerated gentrification, said Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “Whenever a tenancy changes — if the original tenant leaves a unit — the unit can go back to market-rate,” said Varma. “That is a huge problem all over the state.” Varma cited a case last year in which a man was “hit with a multi-thousand dollar rent increase within a month” after his partner, the original tenant, committed suicide. Tenants Union counselors are reporting such uses of Costa Hawkins much more frequently, she said. “When I asked counselors at the Tenants Union last week whether they have seen similar things, three or four people spoke of examples of death in families that led to [displacement],” Varma said. Though long a thorn in the side of tenant rights advocates, mention of Costa Hawkins this year had the tenants rights community buzzing with excitement, as advocates and California lawmakers alike geared up to challenge that law. A bill co-sponsored by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu and two other lawmakers was introduced earlier this year and seeks to roll back the rental act that for more than two decades has limited local jurisdictions from ramping up rent-control protections. Simultaneously, leaders of the tenant advocacy group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Aids Healthcare Foundation last week filed a proposed ballot initiative that also aims to repeal Costa Hawkins. Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, called the 1995 adoption of Costa Hawkins a “gift to the real estate industry.” While its repeal would not automatically ensure rent-control protections to all California renters, it would come as a significant win and much-needed protection for tenants statewide, he said. “[Costa Hawkins’ repeal] would relinquish control to cities regarding implementing [rent control],” Preston said. Despite these efforts, tenant advocates remain cautiously optimistic. Chiu’s bill, AB 1506, is a challenge in the Capitol, where tenant bills have historically faced heavy opposition — backed by big dollars — from the real estate industry. Two less-controversial tenant protection bills sponsored by Chiu in recent years passed by a “bare minimum” in the state Senate, said Judson True, Chiu’s chief of staff. Still, a movement to expand tenant protections has been catching on throughout the state — Richmond and Mountain View are two new cities that passed rent control in the last year. The proposed repeal of Costa Hawkins grew out of an increasing need for additional protections as new rental units hit the market, Preston said. “As years go by, you have more properties subject to Costa Hawkins because of the construction of new buildings,” he said. “It’s a combination of more and more exempt properties that are used by renters, along with a runaway rental market.” By the time Costa Hawkins is rolled back — should the repeal pass — it will likely be too late for Simmons, who is currently banking on her landlord’s change of heart or a fair buyout. “I would gladly want to move,” Simmons said. “But if you don’t have the resources to do that, you’re stuck.”

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