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A Just Cause Eviction Does Not Mean “Just ‘Cause Your Landlord Said So”

glindave

I am 26 years old and living in a 4-unit three-story building in the Inner Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. Two other roommates and I are living in one of the four units.  The building was constructed in 1909.  One roommate has been living in this unit for almost three years now.  Myself and another roommate are on the current one-year lease, which will be concluded at the end of February.

Currently we pay $3,200.00/month for our unit.  We are on very good terms with the landlord, have an excellent track record with no complaints and we all have excellent credit scores and steady jobs. One roommate does have two cats, but the landlord consented and only requested an additional deposit fee when we moved in and signed our one-year lease. 

Now on to my question:  The various owners of the building have gotten together and put the building as a whole on the market (one 4-unit building).  The building has been on the market for over 4 months and has been shown to many parties with no offers made.  

The landlord has informed us that if the building does not sell as a whole by the end of the year (12/31/2013), she plans on selling her individual unit that we are currently occupying.  She has informed us that if this is the case, she will be asking us to vacate the unit when our one-year lease expires on February 28, 2014. I was curious as to what our rights are as good tenants that have come to love this home and do not want to be forced to move at this particular moment.  

Do we have any rights?

In the 4+ years I’ve been writing “Tenant Troubles,” I can’t remember addressing this basic question. Yet it’s a question I answer on the telephone two or three times a week. Here is the bumper sticker answer that you (and each and every tenant living in a rent-controlled unit in San Francisco) need to burn into your brain along with your name, the taste of chocolate and the first time you had sex. This is your new mantra:

IF THE LEASE EXPIRES, I DON’T HAVE TO MOVE.

Try it again, only this time imagine me as Glinda the Good Witch, my wand circling over your head. Close your eyes, tap your heels together three times and think to yourself, “I don’t have to move, I don’t have to move, I don’t have to move…”

In this respect, if you live in a unit built before 1979, you are not in tenant-Kansas. You can only be evicted for just cause. Contrary to what many landlords think, a just cause is not, “Just ’cause I said so.” Indeed the simple sale of a unit is not a just cause.

Rent Ordinance §37.9(k) defines several disclosures that must be made to tenants before the sale of a unit or building.  Rent Ordinance §37.9(k)(1)(A) states that such a disclosure must include a “statement in bold type of at least 12 points that tenants cannot be evicted or asked to move solely because a property is being sold or solely because a new owner has purchased that property.”

You don’t have to move if your lease expires, but you may have to move if the landlord sells the unit, or if she starts to accuse you of fictitious breaches of the lease like stealing her sister’s shoes. Even in San Francisco, there are bad witches, gangrenous green with greed. When you refuse to move as your landlord has “nicely” requested, she could turn on you. You could be dodging fireballs and flying monkeys. Worst of all, she won’t melt if you douse her with a bucket of water.

Given your description of the ownership, I’m assuming that the building is owned jointly. In other words, your landlord owns her unit along with the rest of the owners as a tenancy in common or TIC. If that is the case, she could sell 25% of the building to a new buyer and that new buyer could evict you using an owner-move-in eviction. Of course you and your roommates would be entitled to receive at least $15,621.00 in statutory relocation payments providing you all live in the unit at least a year (Rent Ordinance §37.9C.)

If the unit is a condominium and the landlord sells the unit to a new buyer, Cheese Ball new owners are known to use the fact that the unit is now exempt from rent control provisions of the ordinance to try to increase the rent to avoid paying relocation payments.

The truly wicked landlords, incensed that you dare to assert your rights, just start to drop by, cursing and cackling, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”

Given the current San Francisco real estate market buoyed by the bubble-headed notion that land is a commodity somehow governed by a free market, your situation is bleak. I’ve often said that when a landlord wants a tenant out, they can get them out. That’s the prerogative of the landlord class despite your anemic “rights.” My point? Fight as hard as you can, but have an exit strategy.

The moral of the story: San Francisco tenants who love their apartments and begin to believe “there’s no place like home” are those most in danger. Landlords don’t want you to feel comfortable in your apartment (their property) because that usually means you’re not paying enough rent. Like Dorothy, you may come to realize that Oz is a fiction and you’ll have to settle for Kansas.

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

I do not provide legal advice in the comments section. Please feel free to contact me directly if you have a legal question.

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