The myth of a pro-tenant city

Scott James, whiner.

There are always bad tenants. Always will be. Human interactions are imperfect, and renting out a room in your flat or a flat under your apartment to a stranger is always a bit of a gamble. I've lived with housemates, and it's always been great, but not everyone has that experience -- one old friend of mine lived with a guy who threatened to kill him by writing demonic messages in blood on the bathroom wall and then smashed his car to bits with a street sign.

Yet most of the time, tenants pay the rent and keep things clean and it all works out -- and that doesn't make the news. Real drama is Pacific Heights, Michael Keaton breeding cockroaches and driving a poor young couple to bankruptcy and despair. Real drama is a guy who smashes the door in with a borrowed sledgehammer, floods the basement and throws a live appliance into the sink.

And when stories like that, written by a conservative man who clearly thinks the city is too soft on tenants, make the New York Times, it's easy for the rest of the country to start thinking that San Francisco is some kind of commie paradise where even the worst tenants have all the rights and the nicest, most generous landlords always get screwed.

Such is the case with the Scott James tale of woe that has become one of the most-shared stories in the Times over the past week. Unfortunately, there's nothing about this case that says anything about the state of landlord-tenant law in San Francisco.

James has decided not to rent out his available unit because he had a bad tenant. But he takes a bizarre example of unacceptable behavior and turns it into an argument that the city's generally unfavorable to landlords -- even when it's clear that, in his case, the tenant could have been (and fairly easily was) evicted.

He argues that "it is a widely held belief among renters here that laws are so tilted in favor of tenants (and against landlords) that renters can get away with any outrageous behavior." I know lots of renters and tenant lawyers, and I don't know anyone who would say that breaking into the building with a sledgehammer and shorting out all the circuit breakers is something you can "get away with." The laws that protect tenants essentially say that someone who pays the rent on time, honors the terms of the lease, and doesn't do anything crazy like this guy did, gets to stay in place. The city restricts arbitrary, retailiatory, and purely economic evictions; what Scott found when he filed an eviction notice is that tenants who damage the property are not protected; in his case, there was no long battle, no expensive eviction process. He filed for eviction and the tenant left.

Story over.

If the tenant damaged the place, his or her security deposit would not be returned -- and in most cases, the insurance would cover the rest of the damage. (Michael Petrelis has a nice takeout here; he also remembers that hideous Michael Keaton movie.)

Scott is clearly wealthy enough to pay for his turn of the century Victorian (which he bought for $1.3 million in 2004, according to public records) without renting out the downstairs unit. He's not about to lose his home; in fact, he says he's just as happy to have visitors stay there. So he's not one of those landlords who says he can't possibly survive without raising the rent or using the Ellis Act.

Instead, he's just a whiner. He's holding a valuable rental unit off the market because he wants ... what? The right to throw out any tenant any time without any due process? What exactly is the problem he's facing? How, exactly, did the city's allegedly pro-tenant laws harm him?

I dunno. I have been trying to reach him; I send him emails and a message on Facebook. No response.

Here's the truth: Most tenants are decent people who have, and should have, every right to stay in their homes. But these days, the amount of money flowing into the housing market (much of it, by the way, from big out-of-town investment groups) and the inability of the city to enact effective tenant protections has skewed the balance way, way in favor of the landlords.

The state Legislature has removed the only tools that actually protect low-income tenants in the long term, like rent controls on vacant apartments and anti-eviction rules. So San Francisco, in reality, is anything BUT a tenant paradise.

As for landlords who leave units vacant? They ought to pay a penalty. A tax on vacant residential units might encourage them to take the (modest) risk for the (big) reward, and put their places back on the market. Pacific Heights was just a movie.


A penalty because a property owner doesn't want to remain in the rental business? I doubt it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 11:19 am

penalizing a property owner who leaves a housing unit vacant.

In fact, that is how the Ellis Act came about, after the court upheld the unconstitutionality of any ban, restriction, tax or penalty for leaving a unit empty.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2013 @ 10:04 am

to rent out their units, and not leave them vacant, that led directly to the Ellis Act being passed.

And yet you still don't get it - it is the excesses of rent control that gave you Costa-Hawkins and Ellis. you should have learned from that and yet you clearly do not, again arguing for exactly the type of restrictions that led to those State prohibitions.

Scott obviously cannot Ellis his building since it is essentially a SFH with an in-law, and he is living in the main unit. So Ellis is overkill. But how can you rationally argue that he should be compelled to rent out part of his home?

That's insanity.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 11:20 am

That's what I would do in his situation.

Posted by anon on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 11:24 am

American Economic Review, found that 93pc agreed that “a ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available".

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 11:30 am

It's nice Johnny Angel gave you some room for this numbing rehash of your distaste for property rights. Go Scott James! I'm with anon -- Air BnB all the way.

Posted by Chromefields on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 11:32 am
Posted by anon on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 11:45 am

I've owned a small rental building (under 4 units) for many years now and have found that although the tenants I accept do pay their rent on time and all that, they don't seem to have a great deal of common sense or have been over-protected by mommy and daddy so when they get out on their own they haven't a clue that THEY NEED TO REPORT ANY PROBLEMS THEY HAVE IN THEIR UNIT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE so I can get someone in to fix things before they become a huge problem. For instance, a set of roommates stayed for many years and no one told me the pipe under the kitchen sink was leaking. I would see the girls and ask how things were, anything in there that needed fixing, etc? and they 'd always go, no everything is fine. However, when it came to move out time, one moved out a few months before the others, and in the end only one roommate remained (and she paid the whole rent herself while she worked on buying a condo). When she moved out, we went through the apartment to go over what damage had been done and that's when I found out the sink had been leaking--for literally years--damaging the substructure of the floor and support beams. Had they told me immediately, a plumber could have taken care of it for under $100; now it cost me $12,000 to have things fixed. This is why landlords charge so much for deposits and all that. I don't want to but I can't afford to fix the things the tenants do to the place--windows they've broken (not just the glass, but the framework too), chucks taken out of the hardwood floors, having 10 people live in their space which is a big wear'n'tear issue plus the water bill goes up and the garbage bill goes up because of the excess people--who don't pay me any rent. I work for a living, I cannot live off the building, any repairs or renovations that have to be done come out of my pocket and nothing is cheap. I have been known ot take the in-law studio out of circulation because I've had tenants in there that put a big man-size hole in the floor down to the subfloor (I do not know what they did, after they moved out and I was showing the place I almost fell through the hole which they'd covered over with a thin piece of plywood under the carpeting), another tenant after specifically being told you cannot hand stuff from the ceilings (and it's in the lease) went and hung bike racks and pulled down the whole ceiling. I mean, they were all nice people, did not intend to do the damage they did, but the damage was done and I had to pay for it. Sure, I could have called my insurance company but then my premiums would go up significantly and they are already exceedingly costly. There are landlords who gouge tenants, who are only interested in making a profit. But usually the landlords who have only a small holding only want a nice place to live and maybe get people in who are congenial and reliable and won't cause a lot of damage. But about 8 out of 10 times, even though it's not intended, damage is caused and I have to go into debt to repair it myself. Be better tenants, understand that not all landlords are freaking rich and only want to steal your money, report things that break or need fixing so they can be done before they cause even more damage, and if you break things, be ready to pay your share, don't hide it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

because evictions for that are summary processes, and there is really no defense if you cannot prove you paid the rent. You want a vacancy? Hope for a tenant to default on the rent - once they are more than 3 days late, refuse to accept the rent and ruthlessly and relentlessly pursue the eviction.

Nuisance is a good eviction option too since there is no "3 days to cure or quit" option. You might have to bung a lawyer 5 grand but, chances are, the tenant cannot find the same amount to defend himself.

While the EDC only do so much and they almost always encourage settlement, which means the tenant always goes.

Posted by anon on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

Most tenants are great, I am a renter, use to own a rental property and a manager. I have seen all aspects, in fact the property I co owned if if was even decided on to live there the tenants would have to go. Haven't ever lived in the property which later on we sold the property to the tenants. That was over 10 years ago.

But if someone wants out of the rental property business is fine, just as long he is not evicting tenants to re rent or do anything illegal with his property. He can sit on a extra space and not make money, know people who have done this.

Posted by Garrett on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

uppity about their "rights" and squat in a place for decades just to finesse rent control. I am fine with tenants who pay a market rent and then move on with their lives. But sadly we all know that in SF there are "lifers" who just try and game the system.

When a LL is stuck with one or more of them in a building, the enterprise becomes marginal, and then you have to Ellis, and move on yourself.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

that rent control is good, that rent control protects the poor, that rent control doesn't distort the market - is to be immediately denounced and those spreading such falsehoods are to be attacked relentlessly.

Notice how Tim blithely dismisses the author's concerns by saying "insurance can pay for that" while ignoring, of course, the enormous deductible homeowner's insurance carries with it. He then mentioned how much the owner paid in 2004, not-so-subtly insinuating that because it was over a million he can afford to leave his unit vacant so his concerns are really not to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately for Tim the author's piece was seen by millions more people than was Tim's reactionary defense of the rent control law on these pages. Every story like this is another chink in the armor of rent control and Tim knows it.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

heart, he knows he has lost the debate. Rent control is a failed policy and, 34 years after it was introduced, rents are ski high.


Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 1:23 pm


rent control as a policy is a force, designed to address the avarice & overweening sense of entitlement exhibited by citizens such as yourself.

It's a more effective "taxing" of the rentier class than say parcel taxes, etc.


deflationista signing off.

Posted by GuestofHonor on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

Ruins your little entitlement party.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 1:56 pm