To hear slumlords tell it, San Francisco is a “renters’ paradise,” where obnoxious, lazy, rent-evading tenants constantly take advantage of hard-working, put-upon landlords.
Don’t believe it.
On April 25, the tenants of the Fillmore Apartments–a rent-controlled building in the Lower Haight area of San Francisco–received letters from their landlord.
The letters demanded that those tenants prove that they had a $100,000 minimum annual income and a credit score of at least 725. Those who couldn’t prove such status would be evicted.
Then fate–in the guise of Hoodline, an online San Francisco newsletter–intervened.
When Hoodline published the story, local and even national media attention was immediate–including ABC News, Fox News and Business Insider.
Suddenly, a “change of heart” overcame the landlord. In a second letter to his tenants, he stated:
“After reflection and guidance, I hereby rescind the April 25, 2014 correspondence to you.
“The information contained was flawed.
“My apologies for the confusion created.”
Although the income and credit score requirements outlined in the original letter could have been legally applied to new tenants, they would not have been legal grounds for evicting current tenants.
That could be the “flawed” information to which the second letter was referring.
How could a landlord try to pull off such a flagrantly illegal maneuver in a city that’s supposedly a renter’s paradise?
Even in the city misnamed as a “renter’s paradise,” slumlords are treated like gods by the very agencies that are supposed to protect tenants against their abuses.
Many landlords are eager to kick out long-time residents in favor of new, wealthier high-tech workers moving to San Francisco. An influx of these workers and a resulting housing shortage has proven a godsend for slumlords.
The power of slumlords calls to mind the scene in 1987′s The Untouchables, where Sean Connery’s veteran cop tells Eliot Ness: “Everybody knows where the liquor is. It’s just a question of: Who wants to cross Capone?”
Many tenants have lived with rotting floors, bedbugs, nonworking toilets, mice/rats, chipping lead-based paint and other outrages for not simply months but years.
Consider the situation at the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection (DBI), which is supposed to ensure that apartment buildings are in habitable condition:
- A landlord is automatically given 30 days to correct a health/safety violation. If he drags his feet on the matter, the tenant must live with that problem until it’s resolved.
- If the landlord claims for any reason that he can’t fix the problem within one month, DBI doesn’t demand that he prove this. Instead, it automatically gives him another month.
- A slumlord has to work at being hit with a fine—by letting a problem go uncorrected for three to six months.
- And even then, repeat slumlord offenders often avoid the fine by pleading for leniency.
- That’s because many DBI officials are themselves landlords.
But the situation doesn’t have to remain this way.
- Vastly enhance its own prestige and authority
- Improve living conditions for thousands of San Francisco renters, and
- Bring millions of desperately-needed dollars into the City’s cash-strapped coffers.
By learning some valuable lessons from the “war on drugs” and applying them to regulating slumlords.
- At least 400,000 rape kits containing critical DNA evidence that could convict rapists sit untested in labs around the country.
- But illegal drug kits are automatically rushed to the had of the line.
It isn’t simply because local/state/Federal lawmen universally believe that illicit drugs pose a deadly threat to the Nation’s security.
- Federal asset forfeiture laws allow the Justice Department to seize properties used to “facilitate” violations of Federal anti-drug laws.
- Local and State law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep some of the proceeds once the property has been sold.
- Thus, financially-strapped police agencies have found that pursuing drug-law crimes is a great way to fill their own coffers.
- Prosecutors and lawmen view the seizing of drug-related properties as crucial to eliminating the financial clout of drug-dealing operations.
It’s long past time for San Francisco agencies to apply the same attitude–and methods–toward slumlords.
Such reforms must start with the Department of Building Inspection (DBI)–the primary agency charged with protecting tenants.
Presently, there is no bureaucratic incentive for DBI to rigorously control the criminality of slumlords. But this can be instilled–by making DBI not merely a law-enforcing agency but a revenue-creating one.
And those revenues should come from predatory slumlords who routinely violate the City’s laws protecting tenants.
Among those reforms it should immediately enact:
- Hit slumlord violators up-front with a fine–payable immediately–for at least $2,000 to $5,000 for each health/safety-code violation.
- The slumlord could reclaim 75-80% of the money only if he fully corrected the violation within 30 days. The remaining portion of the levied fine would go into the City coffers, to be shared among DBI and other City agencies.
- This would put the onus on the slumlord, not DBI. Appealing to his greed would ensure his willingness to comply with the ordered actions. As matters now stand, it is DBI who must repeatedly check with the slumlord to find out if its orders have been complied with.