Helping Tenants During Challenging Times By Nancy M. Conway
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Times, September 5, 2013 (read original article)
Editor’s Note: Last month, LGBT leaders in San Francisco told the Bay Times that housing was at the top of the list of concerns for our community here in the Bay Area. Many readers have also expressed this directly to us. You spoke, and we listened! Today we launch a new column authored by noted tenant rights attorney Nancy M. Conway. She and her partner Mischelle Mandel head up a legal firm based in San Francisco, where housing problems can be particularly challenging.
The San Francisco Bay Area real estate market is hot, with housing in high demand and short supply. Property prices rose over 25% since last year and rents are off the charts. This volatile combination pressurizes landlord-tenant relations. As market rents rise, my practice gets busier. As a former SF Rent Board Hearing Officer and an experienced tenant rights attorney, I have observed that there is a correlation between rising real estate prices and landlord-tenants’ problems, including reduction of services, notices to terminate tenancies, verbal threats of impending eviction and harassment.
As the stakes increase, more landlords are willing to take previously unthought-of risks. A lot of rental property is changing hands as long-term owners see this window of opportunity to sell. New owners want to recoup their expenditures, often leading to efforts to vacate the units.
Many evictions are defensible; others can lead to negotiated buy out. A landlord might be unwilling to carry out an eviction through a jury trial, due to the combined expense of lost rents and the expenses associated with litigation, including attorneys’ fees.
I have recently observed an increase in complaints about bogus entries to tenants’ units, repeated verbal suggestions that tenants move out, and terminations of tenancies without just cause. Vacancies are valued at the fair market rent for purposes of financing. In San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, rents and evictions are regulated and tenants cannot be evicted except for just cause. Just causes include failure to pay the rent, habitual late payment of rent, and nuisance.
During the past soft market, a landlord might have tolerated late/missed payments. Now it only takes one or two late payments, and a tenant may come to a rude awakening, such as a three-day notice to pay rent or quit. In the past, the landlord told a tenant to keep the noise down. Now a noise complaint may form grounds for eviction, especially when complaints are coming from a newly arrived tenant paying double what the long-term tenant is paying.
New lawyers on both sides of the field eager to cash in on this volatile period are jumping into the rent Gold Rush. Luckily for tenants, the Bay Area has plenty of resources for tenants and many excellent tenant attorneys. Getting a consultation with a professional will not only alleviate fears, but it will also allow tenants to create a plan and strategy for handling the situation. I advise tenants to seek out advice early, when there’s the first indication of a problem. That gives the upper hand to the tenant, and puts them in the best position to protect his/her home, buy time, or get paid to vacate.
This column is my inaugural article in a monthly series for the Bay Timesintended as a guide to help tenant readers navigate these challenging times. As a brief introduction, I am a civil litigator with an emphasis on landlord tenant law for the past 25 years. I graduated from Golden Gate University School of Law, and have taught at SF State and the University of Texas, Arlington. I served as a mediator for the SF Bar Association and served on the Board of Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom (Gay Bar Association). I have obtained multiple settlements and jury verdicts in the six and seven figure range for tenant clients, and have also successfully defended many unlawful detainers.