Landlords Can't Circumvent Cities' Tenant Protections, Court Says

Thursday, December 3, 2015
Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

A California law that allows landlords to reduce tenants’ protections against eviction doesn’t apply in San Francisco, where the city Rent Board can enforce its own safeguards, a state appeals court has ruled.

Tuesday’s decision by the First District Court of Appeal also makes it harder for landlords to circumvent local rent control restrictions by evicting tenants to raise rents on the next occupants. Property owners must limit rents for existing tenants under laws like the San Francisco ordinance, which tightly restricts annual increases for each unit. They can raise rents to market rates once a unit becomes vacant.

Restricting landlords

In this case, the new owner of a Mission District apartment building in 2011 announced new rules for tenants and said those who couldn’t comply would have to leave. The changes included requiring tenants to provide for their own garbage collection, prohibiting them from storing property on the premises outside their units or washing clothes on the premises, and banning pets.

The landlord, John Britton, relied on a 2000 state law that allows landlords to change the terms of month-to-month leases with 30 days’ notice. But San Francisco’s Rent Board, which enforces the city’s 1979 rent control law, passed regulations in 2012 that restrict landlords’ authority to enforce new lease terms by evicting tenants or forcing them to move out.

Under the city’s rules, a landlord can’t use new rules to evict a tenant unless the changes are specifically authorized by the rent control ordinance, required by state or federal law, or accepted in writing by the tenant or tenants acting without the threat of eviction.

The court said none of those exceptions applied in the case of Margaret Foster, who had lived in an apartment on Tiffany Avenue for more than 40 years when Britton bought the building. Foster contended she had the right to abide by previous house rules that, among other things, allowed some outside storage on the property and provided for garbage service covered by rental payments.

Cities set standards

Britton, who was joined by an association of San Francisco landlords, argued that the Rent Board’s rules violated his rights under California law. But the appeals court disagreed, saying state law allows local governments to set eviction standards.

Under state Supreme Court rulings from 1976 onward, “a municipality has the authority to limit the substantive grounds for eviction,” Justice Maria Rivera said in the 3-0 decision, which upheld a Superior Court judge’s ruling. A rental agreement, Rivera said, “does not include a unilaterally imposed obligation to give up housing services associated with a rental unit, which include parking, laundry facilities, trash service, garden privileges, and storage spaces.”

Preventing new rules

Foster’s lawyer, Matt McFarland of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the ruling “reinforces the city’s ability to implement rent control” by preventing landlords from creating new rules to evict tenants. City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office, which represented the Rent Board, said the ruling reaffirmed the board’s ability to protect tenants.

Britton’s lawyer, Karen Uchiyama, said the court had allowed the Rent Board to bypass the legislative process and create new exceptions to the legal grounds for eviction.

The result is “just more antilandlord and antilaw-abiding-tenant legislation to discourage landlords from staying in the rental business in San Francisco, and to encourage bad behavior of rebelling tenants,” Uchiyama said.



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