San Francisco tenant outraged by landlord raising rent fourfold
San Francisco tenant Deb Follingstad was shocked when she learned her rent was increasing by 400 percent.
So were thousands of people on Facebook.
Follingstad, 46, posted the legal notice she received from her Bernal Heights landlord on the social network on Saturday in hopes of finding a new place to live. Since then, the letter stating that her rent is jumping from $2,145 to $8,900 a month has been shared more than 3,000 times. In addition to the astronomical rent increase that goes into effect on May 5, the landlord slapped Follingstad with an astonishing $12,500-per-month security deposit. (Since security deposits aren’t on a per month basis, Follingstad thinks that may be a typo.)
Follingstad’s residence is a basic two-bedroom and according to Rent Jungle, the average rent of a two-bedroom unit in San Francisco is $4,040, less than half the amount Follingstad is being charged.
Follingstad, a Chinese medicine practitioner who specializes in cancer patients, has lived at 355 Bocana St. for 10 years under rent control.
“The rental situation in San Francisco has been so crazy that you assume something bad could happen, like maybe the building gets sold,” Follingstad, who shares the apartment with her boyfriend, told SFGate. “But I never expected this. When I received the legal notice, I felt sick to my stomach. It’s so outrageous and I never imagined anything like this could be legal.”
The landlord, Nadia Lama, has pulled a clever maneuver, and San Francisco tenants rights attorney Joseph Tobener, managing partner at Tobener Law Center, says it’s too early to tell whether what she did is legal. Lama’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Here’s the back story:
Follingstad moved into the top floor of the two-unit building in 2005. Even though the ground floor apartment was an illegal in-law, the building was considered a multi-unit and “protected from large rent increases under the Rent Ordinance of 1979,” according to SF Curbed. San Francisco law requires owners of makeshift multi-units to adhere to the same rules that legal buildings must follow.
Lama began changing the status of Follingstad’s residence last year when the lower-unit tenant moved out. The owner removed the stove, sink and toilet, turning the downstairs into storage and transforming the multi-unit property into a single-family home. While a discretionary review with the Planning Department is required when removing a legal in-law unit, the process isn’t necessary for an illegal unit and the owner only needs to pull building permits.
“A review is triggered when a legal in-law unit is being removed only if the tenant demands a review within 15 days of the permit being pulled,” Tobener says. “Usually, a tenant doesn’t even know the permits are being pulled.”
As a single-family home, 355 Bocana no longer fell under rent control under the Rent Ordinance, allowing Lama to increase the rent.
Tobener explains that while tenants in single-family homes and condos are protected from evictions, they’re not protected from rent increases. As a result, landlords can force a tenant out by raising the rent to an unaffordable price and avoid paying relocation fees that start at $5,200 per person and go up depending on factors ranging from number of children to a tenant’s disability.
This was likely Lama’s plan all along. Follingstad can’t afford the $8,900 a month rent, not to mention the security deposit, and now she’s faced with moving out.
The trick that Lama pulled is what Tobener calls a constructive eviction by rent increase. “The landlord has jacked up the rent to get around the minimum moving allowance,” he says. “It’s outrageous to me.”
Tobener says that an increasing number of landlords are using constructive evictions to skirt paying tenants’ moving costs.
Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Bernal Heights neighborhood, says he’s aware of Follingstad’s situation and his staff has offered to help her navigate the situation. “I don’t know whether what has happened here is legal,” Campos said to SFGate. “I do know that this goes against the spirit of what rent control is supposed to be about.”
When SFGate reached out to Follingstad this morning, she was about to meet with potential lawyers.
“I talked to the Tenants Union,” she says. “I’m going to get an attorney. But I know I’ll be lucky to get my $1,500 security deposit back.”
For Follingstad, this is all disheartening as she was on good terms with her landlord. “I had a really nice relationship with the landlord,” she says. “I always paid my rent on time and have taken good care of the property. I painted the entire inside of the apartment myself. The landlord paid for the materials but I put in all the labor myself.”
It seems like things are changing rapidly in San Francisco. If you’re in the mood to reminisce about the past, check out these things you’ll never see in S.F. again:
Big dime store Woolworth’s, seen here in 1957 at Market Street and Powell. This S.F. store was one of the chain’s busiest and biggest locations until the company closed all its stores in 1997.