Landlords Sue San Francisco Over Covid-19 Eviction Ban

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline in 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A coalition of landlords and realtors is fighting to overturn a San Francisco law that permanently bans the eviction of tenants who cannot pay rent due to Covid-19-related financial struggles. 

The San Francisco Apartment Association, San Francisco Association of Realtors and two other groups sued the city on Monday. The 11-page lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court claims the city lacks authority to permanently ban evictions, late fees and penalties for tenants experiencing a financial hardship during the pandemic.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance on June 9 in a 10–1 vote, later affirming its decision in a second vote on June 15. Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the city’s affluent Marina and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, voted against it.

The ordinance does not erase a tenant’s debt. Landlords can still pursue back rent in small claims court or through debt collectors.

“It simply takes eviction out of the equation and off the table,” said Supervisor Dean Preston, who sponsored the ordinance, at a June 9 meeting. “The obligation would become akin to a consumer debt which a landlord could elect to pursue in any manner they see fit.”

California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order March 16 authorizing local governments to place a moratorium on evictions. San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued an emergency proclamation that month temporarily halting evictions, and the city’s Board of Supervisors on June 16 adopted an ordinance permanently prohibiting evictions for individuals unable to pay rent during the Covid-19 crisis.

The ordinance states that evictions will be barred pursuant to San Francisco’s “regular authority” and consistent with the governor’s executive order.

The landlord and realtor groups say the governor’s executive order in no way permits the city to permanently ban evictions.

“Despite the ordinance purportedly deriving its authority from the Governor’s order, the order does not permit permanent prohibition of evictions for nonpayment of rent; it only suspends them during the Covid-19 period,” the complaint states.

During the board’s June 9 meeting, Preston explained why he felt a permanent ban on evictions was needed. He predicted that once the eviction moratorium expires, landlords would flood the court with “thousands of filings” giving tenants only three days to pay rent or face the possibility of losing housing.

“No person unable to pay rent on time because of this global pandemic — something unpredictable and over which they had absolutely no control — no person should ever have to worry about being penalized with late fees or evictions because of these circumstances,” Preston said.

Preston said he would work on setting up a Rent Resolution Fund to help small landlords who stand to lose rent money during the pandemic. He has proposed a November ballot measure that would double a city tax on transfers of property valued at $10 million or more to help fund that relief account.

A survey of 352 landlords by the San Francisco Apartment Association in early May found 97% of tenants had paid rent for the month of May.

The landlord and realtor groups, which represent the owners of at least 65,000 rental units in San Francisco, say the city’s order conflicts with California’s unlawful detainer law, which allows landlords to seek evictions in court for tenants who don’t pay rent.

The plaintiffs also claim the ordinance constitutes an unlawful taking of private property and impairs landlords’ contractual agreements with tenants. They further complain the law will force landlords to endure a more arduous civil debt recovery process to retrieve missed rent payments.

The lawsuit suggests the ordinance will mislead tenants into thinking they don’t have to pay rent, which could ultimately make it harder for them to stay in their rental units. 

“Tenants’ decision to withhold rent will be guided by a false sense of security that they are permanently immune from eviction,” the complaint states. “When this court ultimately grants the relief sought, tenants will be even further compromised in their ability to maintain their housing.”

The Coalition for Better Housing and Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Coté did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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