Bay Area Tenants

Phase-in of Costa-Hawkins act will bring higher rents,
evictions, displacement and misery

Starting January 1st, 1999, there will be no limits on the rents that Bay Area landlords can charge new tenants. All Bay Area rent control which previously existed will be crippled due to the full phase-in of the Costa- Hawkins Act, a law passed by the California legislature in 1996. Many poor, long-term tenants will be vulnerable to evictions without cause, and entire communities may be forced out of the Bay Area.

Anyone who has been trying to find a place to live in the Bay Area in the past few months has probably noticed how bad the situation has become. A representative of Berkeley Connections, a rental referral service which profits from people’s difficulties in finding housing, reported that this is the "craziest" year that the rental market has ever seen, with up to 200 people sometimes attending the showing of a single apartment.

The booming economies of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, and San Francisco’s reputation as a livable city, has created a massive demand for housing. This allows realtors and landlords to set prices as high as they want. In San Francisco the market price of rents rose an average of 40% from 1996 to 1997, Ted Gullickson of the S.F. Tenants Union reported. Between 1997 and 1998 they rose another 25%. The situation is so serious that a study released recently by a Washington-D.C. think tank reported that in the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area, 73% of low-income renters spend more than half of their income on housing.

At this point in Berkeley, and to a much lesser extent in Oakland, the profiteering of landlords is still at least partially checked by rent control laws and rent stabilization boards. But the full phase-in of Costa-Hawkins will end many of the existing checks on landlord power.

Costa-Hawkins’ main clause disallows all "vacancy control" stipulations in pre-existing California rent control laws. Having "vacancy control" means that when a person moves out of a rent controlled unit, the landlord cannot increase the rent that the next occupant will have to pay. Berkeley had vacancy control for 18 years prior to the introduction of Costa-Hawkins. San Francisco has never had it, but getting vacancy control has been the main push of the S.F. Tenants Union. The original Oakland rent control law of 1980 included a vacancy control clause, but this was amended in 1986 through the intervention of various landlord groups.

Under Costa-Hawkins all existing rent control laws in California must be changed to include "vacancy de- control." This means that after a tenant voluntarily moves out of a rent-controlled unit (though technically not after they are evicted) a landlord can legally raise the rent to whatever they want. But Costa-Hawkins doesn’t just introduce this rather clear, if deadly, change to rent control. It is a confusing piece of work which also manages to outlaw rent control on all single family units with leases beginning after 1996, and it introduces complicated, ambiguous restrictions on subletting. It even contains language which some S.F. landlords have interpreted to mean that they can suddenly change a renter’s terms of tenancy (such as rules dealing with pets or subletting) without consultation with the renter or even warning. These unilateral changes to a renter’s terms of tenancy are usually aimed at driving out long-term inhabitants in rent-controlled units in order to raise the rent to much higher market rates.

Though Costa-Hawkins was passed in 1996, its provisions dealing with single family residences and vacancy de-control have been slowly phased-in over the last 2 years. So far people who leased single family units after the bill was passed have only had to pay rents at the level legally allowed by local rent control laws. At the same time vacancy de-control has been limited to a maximum of two 15% increases due to voluntary vacancies during the 1996-1998 period.

What can we expect in the coming year, as the phase-in period for Costa-Hawkins ends and its full implications become more clear? For starters, the number of S.F. residents fleeing to the East Bay to find more affordable housing will swell. In S.F. the first of the year will mean an end to rent control on between 10 to 12 thousand single family homes and condos. This will mean rent increases of between 50-75% on these units, in order to bring them up to market rates.

Besides those families unable to pay these higher new rents, many tenants will be driven out of the city by landlords stepping up their efforts to drive long-term tenants out of rent-controlled units and thereby raise the rent. Though the S.F. Tenants Union reports moderate success in fighting landlords’ attempts to drive old tenants out with sudden unilateral changes to terms of tenancy, such tactics will certainly be stepped up as they become increasingly profitable for landlords. Though evictions based on illegal subletting and breach of rental agreement are still at the low level of 50 or so a year, they have increased in frequency by 100% since Costa-Hawkins was passed.

A more common dirty tactic of landlords in S.F. are so-called "owner move-in" evictions, where a landlord claims that they or a relative is going to move in to a rental unit. This tactic is almost never contested by the rent board, and its use has increased by 300% — from 300 to 1200 a year — since Costa-Hawkins passed. Many of those fleeing from San Francisco in the coming year will first look to relocate to quiet and relatively cheap Berkeley. This increased demand for housing, combined with the damage done by Costa-Hawkins to Berkeley’s formerly strong rent control laws, will mean a rapid inflation in Berkeley rents. As in S.F., landlords will begin using any dirty tactics they can in order to drive out long-term tenants and make way for richer renters. Poorer minority tenants, who are less likely to be aware of their legal rights and recourses, will be the most vulnerable to these attacks. As Berkeley fills up with rich professionals and becomes even more of an elitist lifestyle-enclave than it already is, the effects will ripple into Oakland. Because Oakland’s rent control board and ordinance are incredibly weak when compared to Berkeley, it will be even easier for the landlords of Oakland to drive out the poor and minorities. Oakland has no just-cause eviction clause in its rent laws, which means that tenants can be evicted for no reason — only increases in a tenants’ rent warrant a hearing with the rent board. And the Oakland rent board has a hard enough time getting a full quorum of appointed members in order to have an actual meeting, let alone actually dealing with renters’ problem and complaints. The efforts being waged against Costa-Hawkins in the Bay Area are paltry at best. The Oakland Tenants Union is putting their bets on a legalistically convoluted plan. At its base is public testimony made by the writers of the Costa-Hawkins act to the effect that Oakland would be exempt from the Act because it already had vacancy de-control. If Oakland can therefore be shown to be exempt from Costa-Hawkins, the Tenants Union believes that it might then be possible to campaign to have vacancy control introduced in the city. The legal headaches of such a scheme are obvious and infinite.

In San Francisco and Berkeley, the Tenants Unions’ are for now just concerned with nibbling at the edges of the problem, fighting unfair evictions caused by rampant rent profiteering whenever they can.

SB 1730 Burton is a bill coming before the California state legislature soon, aimed at restricting further landlord profiteering in California. Its main focus is to keep greedy landlords from being able to cancel the Section 8 contracts of poor, elderly, disabled people in order to evict them and raise the rent as a form of "vacancy de- control." Though the Burton bill would do several good things to help tenant organizing and low income renters in general, it is only the smallest beginning of a struggle for justice in housing. When it comes to using legal channels to struggle for justice in housing, Costa-Hawkins basically leaves everyone’s hands tied.

But that does not mean that Bay Area residents should simply pay up the increased rents or shuffle off into a hole and die. The masses of renters, who stand to lose so much at the hands of a minority of greedy landlords, need to take a stand against the injustice of escalating rents now. Tenants unions throughout the Bay Area need to unite with other activist organizations and community groups to organize a massive rent strike. This will demonstrate to landlords that using courts, police and rent boards to enforce their greed will no longer be tolerated. Long term tenants should not be displaced and established communities must not be destroyed in order to make way for further yuppie gentrification in the Bay Area. Costa-Hawkins must be repealed and Bay Area rents must return to an affordable level. And who knows, maybe if renters can be organized to stand up for those things, they can even come to realize en masse that landlords are really nothing but parasites and that the idea of having to pay for necessities like housing is utterly ridiculous. When people get together anything is possible…

Try contacting the Eviction Defense Network (415-431-0931), the San Francisco Tenant’s Union (415-282- 6622) or, the Oakland Tenant’s Union (510-704-5276).