How Can I Buy Property In SF And Not Burn In Hell?

Having read your “Tenant Troubles” blog and examined your website, I am curious as to your personal view of bona fide OMI evictions / good faith owner-move-in buyouts.  I should be clear, I’m not looking for your advice in the interest of the landlord, but rather advice in the interest of tenants, AS a (potential) landlord.

We are currently looking to buy somewhere to live in in SF and many places we have looked at are two units, both tenant occupied.  My husband and I have no interest in raising rents or emptying the building for the purposes of raising rent in the future however we do need somewhere to live.  We don’t own any other property in SF.  I am aware it is possibly within our legal rights to do an OMI eviction on one unit (and leave the other occupied as is, rent controlled and all).  However the thought of being an evicting landlord (colorful adjectives you use such as sleazy, lying, greedy etc, I don’t THINK apply but still, we would be displacing someone from their home, there’s no way around it…) does not sit easily.

I fully support rent and eviction controls on principle.  I value the notion of ‘home’ over ‘home ownership’ (UnAmerican I know).  Should I just walk away from occupied properties?  Don’t buy SF property at all?  Someone else will buy and evict no doubt.  Is there a way to do this and have everyone come out on top?  What’s the way forward?

A few years ago a very dear of mine came to me seeking my thoughts on this very issue. She and her husband, long time San Francisco residents and City employees wanted to buy a building with two units, one for them and one for retiring parent.

The market was off its rocker, fueled by what we now know was a Ponzi scheme designed by corrupt banks, mortgage brokers and realtors. Two unit buildings were being snapped up by speculators to be converted into TICs and condos. Tenants were being evicted right and left, because the cheapest buildings were those occupied by tenants, especially long-term disabled and elderly tenants.

My friend has long been a social justice advocate, but she found herself in a position similar to yours. My friend had just seen a building that would be perfect for her and her family, a building in a good location that was priced right and could accommodate her family’s growth. She was planning to have a baby. But the building had tenants and in one unit, elderly tenants.

As we spoke, I described the cases I was defending and others I’d witnessed at theTenants Union. I told her horror story after horror story. During our conversation, I witnessed something that I will never forget. I saw my friend become resolute in her ideals.

We both came to the conclusion that community begins at home and that nobody should have the right to disrupt community simply because they can afford to do so.

With the courage of their convictions, my friend and her family bought a two unit building that was vacant. They paid top dollar so that they could sleep at night. My friend could raise her daughter and speak of social justice without underlying hypocrisy. My friend’s decision was brave and principled but it came at a cost–brave, principled decisions usually do.

If you think about it, much of what is wrong in our country today comes from bottom line thinking that has utterly no regard for its effects on people.

I can tell that you’re conflicted and I think you may trying to do the right thing, but if your decisions are colored by our culture as it is evolving, you’ll be wrong every time. For example, if you believe in “home over home ownership,” why do you need to buy at all?

And why would you even think that your values are “unAmerican”? Do you actually believe that one-third of Americans (renters) are unAmerican?

My advice to you is the same I gave to my friend, buy a place that doesn’t have tenants. Buy a condo or a house or an unoccupied building with a friend. But before you do, find out if the building was previously emptied by an Ellis eviction.

Ellis eviction notices are registered with the Rent Board and they will also show up in a title search. Ask your realtor if tenants were evicted at all to market a unit. He or she will lie, but watch them squirm when you ask. That alone should drive you crazy if you truly care about a stable community.

Also ask yourself if you really want to own property in a city where everybody is rich; a city that drives out its young people because they can’t afford to come back from college and live here. Think about your role in that, if you pay an exorbitant, insane price for a unit in a building.

Community begins at home. Sit down with your husband tonight and discuss what kind of a community you want to live in. Understand that your decision, however small it may be in the larger scope, may have a ripple effect.

Finally, understand that if you make the wrong decision and buy a building in which you evict tenants, you will burn in hell forever.

Crow & Rose's legal practice emphasizes eviction defense, wrongful eviction and other landlord tenant and real property matters.

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