San Francisco scorns landlords. Old-time melodramas made them villains seeking to evict kindly families unless granted the favors of a nubile maiden daughter. The citizenry recently voted to provide renters facing eviction public funding for legal representation. Yes, renters can get screwed. So can landlords. Ask Greg.
A senior, Greg owns a four-unit building—he lives in one—in southeastern San Francisco. Once, he also owned a house in Bernal Heights. The two properties drained his resources, so he sold the house and retained the apartments to provide income for his old age. Rent control has depressed that income. He figures his rents are about one-third of market. They cover less than his mortgage and insurance. Upkeep comes out of his pocket.
It gets worse. One of Greg’s tenants is a drug user with mental problems. Greg calls him “barking mad.” About five years ago, he was taken in as a subtenant by another tenant. The master tenant left. Failing to reach an understanding with his own attorney, Greg accepted rent from the “new tenant.” That put the man practically out of reach.
The new master tenant trashed the apartment—carpeting ruined, the stove filthy. He also used it as a drug flop house with all kinds of people staying over. Topping that, he moved a family into the separate garage that’s part of his unit—and collected rent. That’s illegal. It also exposed Greg to legal problems if the children there were hurt.
In April, Greg started procedures to evict the people in the garage. The master tenant had thirty days to respond. He didn’t. The people in the garage went to a tenants’ help organization. That stopped the eviction. A month-and-a-half later, Greg’s attorney and the family’s pro bono lawyer reached an agreement. The family would leave in mid-July, and Greg would pay them $5,000. A jury trial would have cost Greg $15,000.
In the next weeks, the master tenant will receive notice of the date he will be physically evicted. If he refuses, he can demand a lawyers’ conference and jury trial. Over the past three months, Greg has not accepted rent. California law stipulates that if Greg takes money, he ends the eviction procedure.
Greg hopes that the process costs him “only” $15,000. It will take another $10,000 to clean up the apartment. He regrets always being a little “loose” with tenants out of kindness to the less fortunate. “From now on, I’m going to demand a squeaky-clean record and an upscale job.” He reflects with sadness that he will now be “one of those gentrifying landlords.”
Greg considers not keeping the Bernal Heights home “one of the worst financial decisions I ever made.” He cautions, “Most San Franciscans don’t realize how difficult it can be to be a small landlord. If this happened twenty years ago, I’d have gone into debt.”
He emphasizes that the situation would be more just if landlords had a right to demonstrate to a court that his rents are way under market and should rise to a fair level. He figures that his below-market rents cost him— conservatively—$36,000–$40,000 a year. “It also should be easier to remove a tenant whose behavior is unconscionable.”
No matter how reasonable those observations, Greg does not anticipate relief any time soon.
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