S.F. Supervisor Looks to Shield HIV Survivors from Rent Spikes

Monday, May 16, 2016
Lizzie Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle

For more than 25 years, Richard Johnson has called a one-bedroom apartment in Hayes Valley home — even as the neighborhood changed and rents increased, pushing out old friends. He never imagined he would be among them.

Johnson, 59, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, is disabled and receives a monthly rental assistance voucher from the Housing Opportunities for Persons with HIV/AIDS, known as HOPWA. But while other federal housing programs protect tenants from rent increases, this one does not. On Johnson’s birthday in December, he got a letter in the mail: His rent was going to go up by 175 percent.

“Next year, they could raise my rent to full market price, and I would lose my apartment of 25 years because I couldn’t afford it and have no way to fight an eviction,” said Johnson, who was able to get the rent increase reduced to 35 percent. “My story is not unique. Those with HIV and AIDS, we are being selectively pushed out by the exorbitant increases and have no protections against it.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener on Tuesday will introduce legislation at the Board of Supervisors that would close the rent control loophole, allowing those relying on the program to be protected from increases. The measure could begin providing protection as soon as July.

“When you’re talking about renters who are long-term HIV survivors, these are people who are disproportionally low-income or on a fixed income,” Wiener said. “These are not people that can afford to rent at market rate. If their rent spikes, unless they get really lucky, they have to leave the city or become homeless. The last thing we need is people with HIV being pushed out of their homes due to an irrational loophole.”

The HIV/AIDS federal voucher program helps people living with the disease by providing rental subsidies. Residents must make less than 80 percent of the area median income, and the voucher will cover a certain percentage of the rent, up to $1,900. There are about 250 — mostly elderly — people who rely on the program in San Francisco.

No one is sure why the rent control loophole exists or why those living with HIV and AIDS are exempted. When rent becomes too expensive, many of those in the program are forced to leave the city, losing access to vital medical care and city services. Others are bounced from home to home, relying on friends and family. The unluckiest end up on the streets.

“If they lose their current housing, there is very little chance of finding an affordable unit in the city again,” said Jaime Rush, a housing attorney for the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. “It is a choice between staying in San Francisco and being either literally homeless or marginally homeless. The two avenues are both going to rapidly lead to deterioration of health. It doesn’t end well for these folks.”

Johnson said negotiating his rent spike plunged him into depression. The longtime neighborhood advocate and activist struggled to find other places to live. His identity is intimately tied to his neighborhood.

“It’s unethical, what these people are doing,” he said. “It’s a loophole that allows greedy landlords to jack rent up. And others, like me, have to face the cold fact that our landlords can raise our under-market-rate rental units to market rate in one increase. It seems discriminatory.”

But, if the measure receives support at the Board of Supervisors, it could be fast-tracked to Mayor Ed Lee’s desk, helping people like Johnson stay in their homes.

“We want this measure to be as quick as humanly possible,” Wiener said. “I am confident it will receive strong support. We’re hoping to waive the 30-day rule and have it signed and in effect within a month or two. It’s outrageous that people living with HIV would be excluded from rent control, unlike everyone else.”

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