Most San Francisco tenants enjoy the benefits of rent control, which keeps their rents affordable while they live in their apartment. Under rent control, a landlord can only raise the rent a certain small percentage each year. Below is a quick guide to the ordinance that governs rent control and the city agency, the Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board (more commonly known as simply the Rent Board), which oversees the enforcement of that ordinance.
Rent Control was passed in San Francisco on June 13, 1979. It’s similar to laws passed in many locations throughout the country in the 70s to protect renters from unaffordable rent increases and to provide just cause eviction protections. Under the City’s rent control ordinance, a landlord can only raise the rent a certain percentage each year (an amount determined by the Rent Board), and s/he can only evict a tenant for one of the 16 just causes allowed under this law.
Those causes include non-payment of rent, habitual late payment of rent and creating a nuisance. For more information on rent increases and just causes, see our “Eviction” page. There is no vacancy control in San Francisco, so when a tenant moves out, a landlord can unfortunately raise the rent to market value.
who’s covered under rent control?
Basically, all buildings built before June, 1979 are covered under rent control. If you live in a building that was built before June 1979 you should be covered–unless the building was condo-converted. Or you live in a single-family dwelling that you moved into after January 1, 1996. Condo-converted buildings are not covered under rent control unless the original owner who did the condo conversion still owns it. However, if you moved into the condo before January 1, 1996, you’re still covered.
Tenants who rent single-family houses, which used to be under rent control, are no longer under the price control portion of rent control. However, as with condos, if you moved in before January 1, 1996, then you can only receive the allowable yearly rent increase. Both condos and single-family dwellings are protected by just cause eviction protections, provided they were built before 1979. If you live in a single-family dwelling and there is an in-law unit attached to it, or a garage or basement apartment (whether or not this unit is legal), then your building is considered to have two units and you are fully protected under rent control. Also, if the landlord is renting out individual rooms in a single-family dwelling (each tenant has a separate agreement with the landlord and pays rent to him/her separately), then it’s under rent control.
If you’re not sure when your building was constructed, call the Accessor’s Office (415-554-5596) or check online at sfparcel.org and type in the address. Scroll down on the right and you should see the date the place was built.
Other units not covered by rent control include:
1. Units or rooms in hospitals, convents, monasteries, extended care facilities, asylums, residential care facilities for the aged, and school dorms.
2. Live/work lofts.
3. Units that have undergone “substantial rehabilitation.” The unit must be older than 50 years and be condemned or not qualify for a certificate of occupancy. Landlord must file with the Rent Board.
4. Units or rooms in nonprofit cooperatives, owned and controlled by a majority of the residents.
5. Dwelling units solely owned by a nonprofit benefit corporation, the majority of whose board members are residents of the dwelling unit and where the bylaws require that rent increases be approved by a majority of the residents.
6. Units in project-based, government-assisted or regulated housing (e.g., HUD or SF Housing Authority).
The Rent Board, the body charged with enforcing the rent ordinance and with hearing tenant and landlord complaints pursuant to the law, is composed of five commissioners appointed by the Mayor: two tenant advocates, two landlord advocates and one neutral. There are also five alternates to fill in for these folks when needed. These commissioners formulate the everyday policy of the board as well as hear appeals on cases that tenants and landlords file.
On a day-to-day basis, the Rent Board has counselors available to answer questions on the phone (9 am-4 pm). You can reach a counselor at (415) 252-4602. Counselors cannot give legal advice nor can they take a side (either with tenants or landlords). That’s why they often refer tenants to the Housing Rights Committee or another tenant group in the City. They can give you the basic facts or recommend a petition for you to file to address your complaint.
There are several petitions tenants can file with the Rent Board:
DECREASE IN SERVICES
If you received a service (garage space, laundry room, etc.) when you moved in and it’s suddenly taken away, you can file for a reduction in rent to compensate you for the loss of that service. If your landlord is not doing repairs and you have requested them in writing and he either refuses to do them or ignores your repeated requests, then you can file to have your rent reduced until he fixed things. The administrative law judge may also grant you a reimbursement of a portion of your rent for the time that you have lived with the lack of repairs, but only if you can prove that the landlord knew about the problem. That’s why having copies of any correspondence with the landlord is important.
If you receive an eviction notice that is not based on just cause or is not delivered or written up properly, then you can file this petition. The Rent Board cannot stop an eviction, it doesn’t have that power, but it can advise the landlord that an attempt appears to be illegal. That could be a useful tool in court.
If a landlord suddenly wants you to pay for PG&E or water and you never paid for it before or s/he wants to increase your share, this might be the petition for you.
ILLEGAL RENT INCREASE
For a rent increase above the allowable percentage, you will want to file this. The Rent Board can also check your rent and make sure it’s the right amount based on your initial rent and the allowable increases during your tenancy. Useful for determining if banked increases (when a landlord takes increase she didn’t take in previous years) are correct.
Tenant files petition.
A hearing is set within 45-60 days or longer depending on back log. Tenant receives notice 10 days before the hearing, which is held at 25 Van Ness/Market, 3rd floor, during the day. Some cases start with mediation, but a tenant can ask to go right to arbitration.
At the mediation, tenant and the landlord present their cases. No attorney is necessary. Tenant can have legal or non-attorney representative, if desired, and witnesses.
Judge tries to negotiate settlement. If that fails, arbitration is held, again with both sides presenting their cases and evidence.
Judge mails decision to both parties weeks later.
Appeal can be filed by either party within 15 calendar days. Rent Board Commissioners review case within 30 days. If they accept the appeal, they “remand” it back to a judge or hear it themselves.
what’s allowed at a hearing
Tenant can do the following at his/her arbitration hearing:
—Have witnesses and call them to testify on his/her behalf.
—Cross-examine the other side’s witnesses. Landlord can cross-examine your witnesses, too. You can expose any contradictions of these witnesses.
—Introduce exhibits into the record.
—Disprove any evidence introduced by the other party.
presenting your case
—Don’t alienate the judge. Be polite and present your case reasonably.
—Don’t be rude or obnoxious to your landlord, it won’t help your case.
—Keep your testimony short and to the point. Make sure you answer questions from the judge.
—As the person filing the petition, the tenant has the burden of proof so document everything. Bring photos, letters of complaint to the landlord, written testimony from witnesses who can’t be there, etc. If you need them, bring copies of legal documents such as property ownership, Department of Building Inspection violations, etc.
If you’re appealing a decision of a Rent Board judge, it will go before the Rent Board Commission, which is comprised of five persons: Two landlord reps, two tenant reps and one “neutral.”
You will not be able to testify at the Commissioners’ hearing. You must submit copies of all your documentation for the Commissioners (the appeal form specifies the number of copies). Since you won’t get to speak, what you submit must be convincing and thorough. If the Commissioners grant your appeal, a new hearing will be held within 45 days.
Meanwhile, the first decision is binding, except for any monetary matters (e.g., a proposed rent increase). After the appeals process at the Rent Board is exhausted, a tenant then heads for Small Claims or Superior Court.
what do I need to do for the hearing?
—Be prepared. Think about what you want to say. Write it down.
—Have a written history of your case: For example, in an illegal rent increase petition, have proof all the rent you’ve paid, including all the increase notices, canceled checks and letters to and from your landlord regarding your rent increases.
—Write down all the questions you want to ask the landlord.
—Get together with all your witnesses (and with fellow tenants if you filed the case together) before the hearing to go over what you’re going to say and what papers you’re bringing to support your case.
—Gather all the papers you need from every source in order to adequately present your case. Plan on your landlord denying your allegations so be prepared to prove everything. Try to have all your papers organized when you go into the hearing so that you don’t look disorganized. Have copies for then judge and the landlord.
If you have any questions, feel free to call us during our regular counseling hours: Monday through Thursday, 1-5pm. Or drop-in during the same hours at our office: 1663 Mission, suite 504.