What Every Tenant Should Know About The San Francisco Rent Board

Should I file a wrongful eviction petition at the San Francisco Rent Board?

Be careful.  Wrongful eviction petitions are not what they seem.  The San Francisco Rent Board has no power to stop eviction proceedings.  Eviction lawsuits are resolved at the San Francisco Superior Court only.  It is the rare case when a tenant would want to file a wrongful eviction petition with the San Francisco Rent Board.  All the San Francisco Rent Board has jurisdiction to do is slap the landlord on the wrist.  It will not stop eviction proceedings.  Often times the San Francisco Rent Board ends up just educating the landlord on how to do the eviction correctly.  If you have a landlord that is wrongfully evicting you, it is best to have this resolved through an attorney.  Contact a San Francisco wrongful eviction attorney to have your eviction notice reviewed.  You are likely much better off litigating a wrongful eviction than having the San Francisco Rent Board educate the tenant.   

Should I file a decrease in services petition at the San Francisco Rent Board?

In some cases, a decrease in services petition can be a valuable weapon to force a landlord’s hand.  Other times, a decrease in services petition can be a waste of time for a tenant.  And, in some cases, a tenant is much better off filing a lawsuit in superior court. 

First, the San Francisco Rent Board will only hear matters where there has been substantial decrease in services.  It is a subjective standard.  The hearing officer will look to how important the service was to the tenant.  For example, a grab bar in a bathtub would be very important to some tenants and not important at all to others. 

Second, the San Francisco Rent Board often only awards nominal amounts for repair issues, like no heat, slow plumbing, and rodents.  Think $25 to $100 per month for even fairly serious issue.  Tenants are often much better off filing habitability lawsuits  in San Francisco Superior Court, where the awards are much larger and the claims are frequently covered by insurance.  A good tenant rights lawyer will be able to evaluate whether the repair issues warrant a lawsuit and whether the repairs are the type that will result in a big award paid by insurance.

Third, the San Francisco Rent Board cannot even hear claims of harassment.  In almost every case where a landlord has decreased services, the landlord or landlord agent has also harassed a tenant.  Claims of harassment can only be brought in San Francisco Superior Court.  You should contact a San Francisco tenant lawyer to determine if you have a claim for harassment that is actionable in superior court. 

Fourth, where a landlord is denying the right to a roommate, a decrease in services petition at the San Francisco Rent Board is a good idea.  The Rent Board has the power to cut a tenant’s rent by a third or half when a landlord is denying the right to a roommate.  Often times, just filing a San Francisco Rent Board petition to challenge this refusal will force a landlord to capitulate.

How do I win a tenant-in-occupancy (1.21 or 6.14 or Costa Hawkins) case?

San Francisco tenants living in rent-controlled buildings need to be savvy about the laws that govern their unit to ensure they stay in their homes.  Decades ago the City enacted the San Francisco Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance to address displacement of long-term tenants in an increasingly expensive rental housing market.  Under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance , a landlord can only raise the rent a certain small percentage each year and can only evict a tenant for one of the just cause reasons enumerated in the law.  The ordinance covers most residential rental units in buildings that were constructed before June 13, 1979.  Illegal units are also covered.

The San Francisco Rent Board is the body that enforces the rules and regulations of the Rent Ordinance.  Its primary function is to conduct hearings on tenant and landlord petitions for matters that are covered in the ordinance.  The Rent Board also investigates reports of alleged wrongful evictions, but their authority regarding these claims is limited to investigation only because a court must decide whether an eviction is legal.

The San Francisco Rent Board will only mediate or arbitrate claims that are covered by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance.

The Rent Board will only hear matters that are covered under the Rent Ordinance. Other claims such as a breach of a lease agreement, security deposit returns, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, crime, noise, nuisance, and personal injury are issues the court must decide.  A tenant should speak to attorney regarding any non-Rent Ordinance based claim to determine whether a civil lawsuit is an option.

For matters that the Rent Ordinance does cover, the Rent Board is the appropriate place to hear the claim.

It has recognized that bringing a matter before the court for an issue that is covered in the Rent Ordinance would not only be overly time consuming and costly to the tenant but would also “… circumvent the strong tenant protections found in the rent ordinance.”  DeLaura v. Beckett, Cal. App. 4th 542, 547 (2006).

For claims that concern the adjustment of rent (i.e. tenant is seeking a decrease or landlord is seeking an increase) or the determination of the status of either the tenant or the unit itself, the proper body to hear the claim is the San Francisco Rent Board. There are several types of petitions that a tenant can file with the Rent Board to have their issue heard.  There is no cost to file a petition and most petitions are resolved fairly quickly.  Once the petition is complete, the claim will be set for mediation between the parties.  If the matter isn’t resolved at mediation, it will go to arbitration, which issues a final judgment.  While not always necessary, a tenant may choose to be represented by an attorney at the hearings.

Which Rent Board petitions can a tenant handle on their own without an attorney?

A tenant can handle routine minor or non-complicated claims with the Rent Board without the assistance of an attorney.  Tenants can likely pursue the following types of petitions on their own:

  • Determination on whether the Rent Board has jurisdiction over the unit;
  • Determination of whether a tenant is a protected tenant;
  • Unlawful Rent Increase or Request for Determination of Lawful Rent;
  • Improper Utilities Passthrough;
  • Improper Bond Passthroughs;
  • Failure to Discontinue a Capital Improvement Passthrough;
  • Section 6.15C(3) Proportional Rent Claim by a Subtenant Against a Master Tenant;
  • Unlawful Initial Rent Claim by a Subtenant; and
  • Most other minor issues that are related to regulation of rents under the Rent Ordinance.

These petitions are generally straightforward and do not require complicated evidence or arguments to resolve.

Which Rent Board petitions should a tenant seek assistance from an attorney before pursuing?

Rent Board mediations and arbitrations can get complicated and tenants should speak with an attorney prior to filing certain petitions.  Once the petition is deemed complete it will be set for a hearing.  The parties will be able to present documentary evidence, witness testimony, and be able to cross-examine the other parties and their witnesses at the hearing.  The Administrative Law Judge that presides over the hearing can also ask questions of the parties and witnesses.  While, in theory, the process is designed so that attorneys are not necessary, some circumstances require an experienced lawyer.  Claims of wrongful eviction, substantial decrease in housing services, failure to repair and maintain, and determination of the status of the subsequent occupants are areas where a tenant would be wise to speak with an attorney before filing a petition with the Board.

Wrongful Eviction Petition

Because a tenant’s specific set of facts and circumstance can vary, and because there is a limited time for which a tenant must respond to an eviction notice, tenants who suspect that their landlord is attempting to illegally evict them should immediately consult with an attorney any time they are served with a notice or lawsuit.

The Rent Board’s jurisdiction is limited to investigating the allegation of a wrongful eviction; it does not have the power to deem an eviction illegal because only a court can make that determination. The most common types of eviction notices that a tenant may receive are an Owner Move-in, Ellis Act, or a Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit based on a just cause reason for eviction under the Rent Ordinance.  A tenant can file a petition with the Rent Board if they receive an eviction notice that is not based on a just cause, if the notice does not meet certain requirements regarding content, service of process, or relocation payment, and for other reasons where the notice violates the ordinance.  The Board will investigate the claim but cannot stop the eviction from moving forward.  If the attempted eviction appears to be illegal, the Board will advise the landlord of this, which may put the tenant at a disadvantage.  Instead of discouraging the landlord’s intent to evict, the landlord may feel emboldened by the advice given by the Rent Board and continue at full-force their pursuit to kick the tenant out.

Also, if the tenant has already complied with the eviction notice and is no longer in the unit but now suspects the landlord acted in bad faith and the eviction is illegal, there is nothing the Rent Board can do to help the tenant.  Tenants in this situation must immediately contact an experienced attorney who can discuss whether a lawsuit against the landlord is appropriate.

Substantial Decrease in Services Petition/Failure to Repair and Maintain

A tenant can typically handle a Decrease in Services Petition on their own when the decrease in service is relatively small and simple.  For example, if the tenant’s agreed upon storage space was suddenly taken away without any reduction in rent, the tenant could successfully pursue the reduction themself as the claim would not be difficult to prove.  However, many of the Decrease in Service Petitions go hand-in-hand with a Failure to Repair and Maintain Petition.  Coupled together they usually signal that there is a possible habitability claim or constructive eviction claim present, which are outside the Rent Board’s jurisdiction.

Many of these petitions are based on a lack of substantial repairs such that the unit has fallen into complete dilapidation rendering the unit unlivable.  Unsafe and unsanitary conditions, such as mold and vermin, can also cause a tenant to be constructively evicted from their home.   A tenant in these circumstances should consult with an attorney to determine what their options are. Depending on the specific facts and circumstances, filing a petition with the Rent Board may not yield the optimal result, and the tenant may need to file a civil lawsuit against the landlord instead.

Tenant In Occupancy Petition

If a unit is empty, an owner can raise the rent as high as they want.  Sometimes even when the unit is occupied, the landlord will still attempt to raise the rent to market rate or beyond based on the argument that the occupying tenants are not the original tenants to the signed lease and have no or have limited rights.  The Tenant In Occupancy Petition is a petition that is filed by the landlord seeking from the Rent Board a determination that there is no tenant in occupancy so that the landlord can raise the rent to whatever amount they want.

If the occupying resident is not the original tenant and moved into an already existing tenancy, the answer on how the Rent Board will decide if that subsequent person is a tenant hinges on several important facts that must be examined.  A tenant should speak to a lawyer if faced with this situation as there are many crucial items to analyze, such as: does the landlord know you live in the unit, is it your principal place of residence, has the landlord accepted direct rent payments from you, are there witnesses and evidence to present, and more.  S.F. Cal., Rent Ordinance § 1.21. Also important to know is whether the tenant moved in before January 1, 1996, and did the landlord timely serve a 6.14 notice. 

This matter can become laborious and complex and usually requires legal expertise to resolve.  Tenants faced with this issue may be unnecessarily displaced from their home and should consult with an attorney if their landlord has filed a Tenant in Occupancy Petition.

When in doubt, talk to an experienced lawyer.

The San Francisco Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance was emergency legislation enacted decades ago to respond to the rental market environment where tenants could easily be taken advantage of or displaced from their long-term homes.  Over the years the rules and regulations of the ordinance have grown in number and in complexity.  San Francisco tenants cannot be expected to stay current with the numerous landlord/tenant laws, and landlords count on this.

If you have been served with an eviction notice, have been wrongfully evicted, or have questions about any of the information discussed above, call Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak with an experienced tenant attorney.

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