SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Upholding a law that protects San Francisco tenants unable to afford rent because of the Covid-19 crisis, a judge ruled Tuesday that the moratorium on evictions is a “permissible exercise” of the city’s power.
Though landlord and real estate industry groups had alleged in a June suit that the ordinance amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charles Haines called it “a reasonable exercise of the police power to promote public welfare.”
“No one should be evicted from their home because of a global pandemic,” city attorney Dennis Herrera said in an email Tuesday, reacting to the ruling. “We’re proud to have won the day in court for San Francisco residents. This is a time for everyone to pull together and help each other out.”
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance by a 10–1 vote in June. Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the city’s affluent Marina and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, voted against it.
Supervisor Dean Preston emphasized that the ordinance does not erase a tenant’s debt. Landlords can still pursue back rent in small claims court or through debt collectors, though they will not be able to charge late fees.
“It simply takes eviction out of the equation and off the table,” said 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.”
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.
Unlawful-detainer actions are currently on hold statewide under an emergency rule passed by California’s Judicial Council in March. The policymaking arm of the state’s court system could soon vote to dissolve the eviction freeze, however, allowing state courts to resume processing eviction lawsuits starting on Aug. 14. San Francisco’s law will permanently forestall evictions, however, provided the tenant has made a claim to their landlord that they have suffered a financial loss from the pandemic.
Haines on Tuesday disagreed that either state law or by Governor Newsom’s emergency executive order suspending evictions pre-empt San Francisco’s ordinance.
Andrew Zacks, an attorney for the landlords with the firm Zacks, Freedman & Patterson , said in a phone interview Tuesday that the city’s law, now with the blessing of a judge’s order, goes much further than emergency scheme established by the state.
“This order basically means that San Francisco can eliminate the grounds of nonpayment as a basis to evict tenants, not in the context of an emergency but as a general matter,” Zacks said. “What’s to stop the city from going further? That’s why this case is such an important one even outside the world of the emergency. If we were comfortable that the city wasn’t going to go any further it wouldn’t be as important.”
He said it’s typical for the government to try to permanently expand its powers during an emergency, and that it would be a logical step for the city to extend its eviction protections to financial hardships beyond those created by the pandemic. “Certain government power is expanded in an emergency and government forgets it’s supposed to be temporary,” he said. “And once the government has the power it doesn’t want to give it up.
“My clients are fighting for the very principle that when a landlord rents a property, the tenant has to pay rent or the tenant has to move,” Zacks added. “That’s the hallmark of what a landlord-tenant relationship is. San Francisco is trying to upend that. The landlord still has the ability bring lawsuits for breach of contract which most landlords won’t do or or don’t want to do. Most landlords don’t want to evict and would much rather work something out with tenants, but tenants don’t have an incentive to work anything out.”
Zacks said an appeal could be filed as early as this week.