October 31, 2008

Prop M: The Latest Battle in San Francisco’s Rent Wars

By Tim Kingston, Newsdesk.org/The Public Press

The Truthiness Report: No. 9 in a series on election advertising.

Rancorous is always a good way to describe tenant-landlord relations in San Francisco, and the debate over Proposition M — an anti-harassment initiative put on the ballot by tenants’ rights activists — is no exception.

The inelegantly dubbed Changing the Residential Rent Ordinance to Prohibit Specific Acts of Harassment of Tenants by Landlords attempts to do just that — at great length, and has spurred an exchange of pro and con arguments around free speech and the role of lawyers.

Proposition M replaces a simple one-paragraph definition — “any act or omission … that causes or is intended to cause any person … [to vacate] a dwelling unit” — with a 22-paragraph explanation of exactly what constitutes landlord harassment of tenants.

This would include, among other things, intimidation; physical threats; failure to provide housing services, repairs or maintenance; refusal to accept rent checks; and landlord abuse of the right to access units.

Penalties for infractions would include rent reductions and other sanctions.

Jump in Harassment?

Tenant activists say the measure is essential, while opponents assert that it’s legally redundent — and also faces the same fate as an earlier anti-harassment measure that was tossed out by the courts.

According to proponents, M was crafted with that failure in mind, and will stand up to legal challenges.

The initiative is backed by the San Francisco Tenants Union, which paid for the majority of arguments in the voters handbook, the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee and other tenants’ rights groups.

Tenant attorneys and activists say the measure is needed, due to what they assert is a jump in the number of renters suffering harassment from owners eager to boot rent-controlled tenants and charge market rates.

While there are no official numbers, figures compiled by the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee, through its intake statistics, show 210 harassment complaints so far this year.

Starting in 2000, those intakes show an increase in the number of such complaints, going from 181 in 2000 to 246 in 2007 (although the numbers dropped during one interim year, tallying at 189 in 2006).

There are no city figures on such harassment; one reason advocates say the measure is needed is so the San Francisco Rent Board can accurately count harassment incidents.

San Francisco Apartment Association Executive Director Janan New said Proposition M is unnecessary, as “tenants are already protected under current law.”

New also contends the issue was settled by a case called Baba v. CCSF (PDF) filed in November 2004, which invalidated earlier anti-harassment legislation.

The SFAA also cites another case that invalidated a Santa Monica anti-harassment law.

Free Speech for Landlords?

While New is calm when discussing the issue, language used against the measure in the voters’ handbook is far less so.

“Unconstitutional!” one argument screams in capital letters.

It “violates” the First Amendment, states another in boldface letters.

Still another bold-faced argument says it violates landlords’ free speech and “should be called the Full Employment Act for Greedy Lawyers.”

Scott Weaver, an attorney representing almost 80 tenants who are suing the Citi Apartments property management company for harassment, said the measure does not violate the First Amendment.

“Some landlords are hiding behind free speech to verbally harass people,” said Ted Gullicksen, a spokesman for the San Francisco Tenant Union. “There is, in California law, the ability to get a [temporary restraining order] against someone who calls repeatedly on the phone. There are anti-stalking laws.”

[The Truthiness Report contacted UC Hastings and Boalt schools of law, but was unable to find a scholar familiar with the legisltation or its First Amendment implications by press time.]

As for the argument that the whole measure was dreamed up by lawyers to fill their pocket books — Gullickson notes that the anti-lawyer assertions are the “worst argument they have … Proposition M is designed to avoid court suits. It allows tenants to go to the rent board where lawyers are not needed to file for a decrease in rent if they are harassed. Right now [tenants] only recourse is a lawsuit.”

Indeed, Tim Lee, a senior administrative law judge in San Francisco, noted that “currently, the rent board does not deal with tenant harassment,” unless the landlord is reducing services or creating a nuisance for the tenant on an ongoing basis.

He carefully acknowledged that in cases where tenants cannot get redress from the rent board, they can file a lawsuit against their landlord.

Lawsuits seem like an inevitable outcome, especially if Proposition M passes.

“They sue on everything,” Gullicksen said, referring to landlords and their allies. “We always expect that.”

He’s optimistic about any court battle, but then again, the San Francisco Tenants Union will not be paying the legal fees.

That task goes to the city attorney’s office.

Tim Kingston is a veteran investigative and general assignment reporter in the Bay Area. His stories and opinion articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Bay Guardian, East Bay Express, San Jose Mercury New, AlterNet and The Nation, among other outlets.

The San Francisco 2008 Election Truthiness Report is co-produced by Newsdesk.org and The Public Press, and funded through small donations using the Spot.Us “crowdfunding” Web site.

4 thoughts on “Prop M: The Latest Battle in San Francisco’s Rent Wars

  1. I’m a Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights organizer and tenant advocate. Santa Monica’s 11-year law against tenant harassment was not invalidated. It lists many of the same acts as the proposed San Francisco proposition, but subjects the perpetrators to criminal penalties and civil liability. Because the City Attorney enforces the law fairly but publicly, landlords have learned to temper their behavior towards tenants. Harassment has been reduced to very small numbers.

    One of the grounds for harassment in the Santa Monica law was overturned by the courts. The ruling turned on the right of landlords to freely bring cases to court, the litigation privilege. Our law had made it unlawful to bring eviction cases or serve eviction notices that the landlord knew were without merit. We are considering ways to overcome this infirmity.

    Good luck with Prop. M.

    Michael Tarbet

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  4. With all that forceful jargon. Aren’t we all just saying to ourselves, Were’s the loophole for tenants to get their asses kicked when the landlord feels like it. Come on we are all thinking it.