Renters Rights: The Definitive Guide

For San Francisco And The Bay Area


San Francisco rents are some of the most expensive in the nation.  The average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the City is about $4,400.  With wages unable to keep up with the continually rising rent costs, many Bay Area tenants are paying more than 30% of their income to rent and are unable to afford adequate housing.  San Francisco landlords are notorious for taking advantage of their tenants and prospective tenants in order to maximize their personal financial gains.  Landlords count on tenants not knowing or understanding the many renter’s rights that exist under California law and the San Francisco Rent Ordinance.  Low-income, the elderly, the disabled, and minority communities are often affected disproportionately by the high rents and scarce affordable housing.  Understanding what San Francisco tenant rights exist for renters will help keep people from being displaced from their homes.

We break down and explain the leading issues and complaints of Bay Area tennants

Here is a summary of San Francisco Tenant Rights

San Francisco Rent Ordinance

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.  The San Francisco Rent Ordinance provides two protections:  rent control and eviction control.  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. 

Generally, buildings that contain two or more units built before 1979 have both rent protection and eviction protection.  As of January 22, 2020, almost all units in San Francisco, regardless of construction date or number of units, now have just-cause for eviction protection, including anti-harassment protection, under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance.

If your tenancy is covered by eviction control but not by rent control under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, you may have rent-ceiling protection under the California Tenant Protection Act, the new state rent control law, if your building is fifteen years old or older and your unit meets all other requirements under the law.

SF Rent Board

The San Francisco Rent Board is the body that enforces the rules and regulations of the Rent Ordinance.  The Rent Board will only hear matters that are covered under the Rent Ordinance such as an unlawful rent increase or a reduction in services issue.  Other claims that a tenant’s rights have been violated such as a breach of a lease agreement, security deposit returns, and harassment are issues that the court must decide.  Tenants can generally handle filing most petitions with the Board on their own.  While the Rent Board does counsel tenants on San Francisco renters rights under the ordinance, it does not provide an attorney to any party nor does it give legal advice.

Allowable rent increase

For units that are covered under the Rent Ordinance, the annual allowable rent increase amount effective March 1, 2019 through February 29, 2020 is 2.6%.  A tenant’s rent can only be increased once in a twelve month period. This percentage changes each year based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  In some instances, rent can be raised beyond the allowable increase.  Landlords that have not increased rent may bank increases to collect at a later date and may bank rent back to 1982.  Banked increases do not have to be approved by the Board like increases due to capital improvement costs or increased operating and maintenance expenses.  Tenants may file a petition with the Rent Board if they believe that their rent has been increased beyond the allowable amount.

Generally, there is no limit on the amount of rent a landlord may first charge the tenant when renting a vacant unit.  And, tenants should note that pursuant to a state law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, most single-family homes and condominiums may be exempt from the rent increase limitations of the ordinance but not the just cause eviction provisions.

Just Cause Reasons for Eviction

Almost all residential buildings in San Francisco are protected under the just-cause for eviction protections of the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, regardless of the number of units in the building or the construction date of the building. Also, properties that previously had a petition for substantial rehabilitation approved to exempt the building from the ordinance now have eviction control.  

Tenants that are protected under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance cannot be evicted from their unit unless the landlord has a just-cause reason to do so under the law.

In San Francisco, there are fifteen just-cause reasons for eviction; these include for-fault reasons and no-fault reasons.  Some common for-fault reasons are that the tenant has not paid rent, has breached a lease term, is causing a nuisance, or is engaging in illegal use of the unit.  Owner move-in evictions (a landlord or their relative seeks to move into the unit) and Ellis Act evictions (the landlord desires to permanently remove the unit from the rental market) are common no-fault reasons for eviction.

Wrongful Eviction

A far too common violation of a renters rights, a wrongful eviction occurs when a landlord illegally forces a tenant to move out of a rent-controlled unit. This can be either a permanent or temporary ouster. Landlords wrongfully evict tenants in many ways. A landlord can be found liable for the lost rental value of the rent-controlled unit, moving costs and statutory relocation fees, and emotional distress. Under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, the damages are also tripled.

Owner Move-in

Owner Move-in eviction is one of the just cause evictions listed in the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, and it is one of the most abused just cause reasons for eviction in San Francisco. There are strict statutory requirements that a landlord must follow to do an OMI eviction, and tenants must be paid relocations benefits.


Landlords are required to make all necessary repairs to ensure a rental unit is habitable and to comply with state and local building and health codes.

Ellis Act

An Ellis Act eviction is one of the just cause evictions listed in the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. An Ellis Act eviction is when tenants are evicted because the landlord is removing all units in the building from the rental market. There are strict statutory requirements that the landlord must follow to do an Ellis Act eviction, and payment of relocation benefits for tenants is required.

Illegal Unit

Rent controlled jurisdictions recognize that these units deserve special protection. A tenant who lives in an illegal unit may think that they do not have any rights, but illegal units are in fact covered under SF’s Rent Ordinance. A landlord cannot increase the rent more than the allowable amount, and the tenant cannot be evicted without good cause under the rent ordinance.

Noisy Neighbors

Excessive continuous noise can impact a person’s health and wellbeing. Implied in all California leases is a covenant of “quiet enjoyment”. Landlords have a duty to ensure that tenants can peaceful possess their rental unit free of disturbances, and in extreme cases may take steps to evict bothersome tenants to abate a nuisance.

Harassment by landlord

Landlords cannot harass tenants out of their homes. It might be the landlord’s property, but it is the tenant’s home. Landlord harassment can be difficult to prove, but there are steps that a tenant can take document the harassment to ultimately hold the landlord accountable.

Nuisance Neighbors

Neighbor disputes are common in populous cities. Having an issue with the person next door or another tenant in your building can also be frustrating, but not all of the bothersome behavior by a neighbor is a nuisance. Find out what a nuisance is and what you can do about it.

Housing Discrimination

There are federal, state, and city laws that prohibit housing discrimination. Housing discrimination takes place when an individual or a group is treated adversely based on a legally protected characteristic such as their race, sex, religion, familial status, or disability. San Francisco law adds additional characteristics such as gender identity, height, and weight to the list. Discrimination can be found everywhere from a landlord’s overt prejudicial actions to an online advertisement for a rental property.


Generally, landlords have the right to prohibit smoking of cigarettes or other tobacco products in and around a rental property as long as it is written into the lease agreement. Many leases ban smoking of any kind, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and marijuana. But tenants may have rights concerning medical marijuana. Also, tenants have rights regarding second hand smoke.

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Roommates (Subsequent Occupant)

If you are an original tenant under the lease agreement, your landlord cannot raise your rent just because the other original tenants leave. But, if you are not an original tenant and moved into an already existing tenancy, whether you have rent-ceiling protection hinges on several important facts. Some of the key questions to answer include the following: does the landlord know you live in the unit, has the landlord accepted direct rent payments from you, did you move in before January 1, 1996, did the landlord timely serve you a 6.14 notice, and did the landlord timely raise the rent.

Immigration Status

In October 2017, the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act was passed to prevent landlords in California from discriminating against tenants and prospective tenants based on their immigration status. A landlord who violates the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act can be held liable for a civil penalty of up to $2,000.00, plus six to twelve times the monthly rent.

Wear and Tear

Most disputes over security deposits come down to what constitutes “normal wear and tear.” When a tenant moves out of a unit, the landlord may deduct from a tenant’s security deposit to repair damage to the premises that is caused by the tenant, but only for damage beyond wear and tear. A tenant should understand at the beginning of their tenancy what exactly is be considered “ordinary wear and tear.”

Crime Prevention

Landlords have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect tenants from the foreseeable criminal acts of another. Criminal acts can include conduct such as assault, battery, robbery, murder, rape, drug abuse, and property damage. When a landlord fails to use reasonable care to protect their tenants, they can be held liable for the negligent or intentional criminal conduct of a third party

Security Deposit

Tenants should do a pre-move in and a pre-move out inspection of the premises. The landlord can deduct from the security for “ordinary wear and tear” but must account for those deductions in writing. Additionally, the tenant is entitled to the return of their security deposit twenty-one (21) days after they move out. If a landlord withholds a tenant’s security deposit in bad faith, they may be liable for the amount of the deposit and up to twice the amount of the deposit.

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