Slumlords would have everyone believe that San Francisco is a “renters’ paradise.” A place where hard-working landlords are routinely taken advantage of by rent-avoiding bums who want to be constantly pampered.
On the contrary: It’s not renters who hold “untouchable” status, but slumlords themselves.
If you doubt it, you need only review the case of slumlords Kip and Nicole Macy. They waged a two-year war on their rent-paying tenants to force them out of their South of Market building.
The reason: The Macys wanted to get them out of their rent-controlled apartments so they could rent these out to tenants who could afford extortionate rents.
For two years, the police and district attorney’s office stood by while the Macys aimed threats, vandalism, illegal lockouts and violence at their law-abiding tenants.
The Macys have since been convicted and will be sentenced to four years and four months imprisonment. But this case is a rarity for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
Meanwhile, thousands of San Francisco tenants have lived with rotting floors, nonworking toilets, chipping lead-based paint and other outrages for not simply months but years.
But San Francisco tenants need not be put at the mercy of greedy, arrogant slumlords. And the agencies that are supposed to protect them need not be reduced to impotent farces.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office should create a special unit to investigate and prosecute slumlords. Prosecutors should offer rewards to citizens who provide tips on major outrages by the city’s slumlords.
And the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection–which is charged with guaranteeing the habitability of apartment buildings–should immediately adopt a series of long-overdue refirms.
By doing so, it can:
- 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.
In Part 2 of this series I outlined 14 such reforms. In this concluding column, I will outline the remaining eight:
- DBI should order landlords to post their Notices of Violation in public areas of their buildings–on pain of serious financial penalties for failing to do so. When DBI orders a slumlord to take corrective action, s/he is the only person who is notified. Thus, if that slumlord refuses to comply with those directives, s/he is the only one who realizes it. Given the pressing demands on DBI, weeks or months will pass before the agency learns about this violation of its orders. Tenants have a right to know if their landlord is complying with the law.
- DBI should launch–and maintain–a city-wide advertising campaign to alert residents to its services. Everyone knows the FBI pursues bank robbers, but too many San Franciscans do not even know that DBI exists, let alone what laws it enforces. This should be an in-your-face campaign: “Do you have bedbugs in your apartment? Has your stove stopped working? Are you afraid to ride in your building elevator because it keeps malfunctioning? Have you complained to your landlord and gotten nowhere? Then call DBI at —–. Or drop us an email at ——.”
- Landlords should be legally required to give each tenant a list of the major city agencies (such as DBI, Department of Public Health and the Rent Board) that exist to help tenants resolve problems with their housing.
- Landlords should be legally required to rehabilitate a unit every time a new tenant moves in, or at least have it examined by a DBI inspector every two years. A tenant can occupy a unit for ten or more years, then die or move out, and the landlord immediately rents the unit to the first person who comes along, without making any repairs or upgrades whatsoever.
- Landlords should be required to bring all the units in a building up to existing building codes, and not just those in need of immediate repair.
- Landlords should be legally required to hire a certified-expert contractor to perform building repairs. Many landlords insist on making such repairs despite their not being trained or experienced in doing so, thereby risking the lives of their tenants.
- DBI should not view itself as a “mediation” agency between landlords and tenants. Most landlords hate DBI and will always do so. They believe they should be allowed to treat their tenants like serfs, raise extortionate rents anytime they desire, and maintain their buildings in whatever state they wish. And no efforts by DBI to persuade them of its good intentions will ever change their minds.
- Above all, DBI must stop viewing itself as a mere regulatory agency and start seeing itself as a law enforcement one. The FBI doesn’t ask criminals to comply with the law; it applies whatever amount of force is needed to gain their compliance. Niccolo Machiavelli said it best: If you can’t be loved by your enemies, then at least make yourself respected by them.
As Robert F. Kennedy wrote: “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.”