“Let me start by offering my and my client’s condolences on the loss of your wife,” the letter begins. “We know this must be a difficult time for you and we sincerely wish you well. Due to her passing, the ownership has the right to establish a new rental amount for your unit under the state law known as the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. With regret, this letter serves to provide you with the attached notice … which establishes the rental amount to increase by $1,146.15 due on Dec. 1, 2018. We are confident the long period of time between the date of this notice and the date when the new rent takes effect will be helpful to you.”
Supervisor Jane Kim’s voice grew tense as she read this letter from a friend out loud during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 4.
“I cannot express the rage that I and many of his friends felt that, a mere 20 days after his wife’s passing, a landlord would send a letter such as this, which is legal under state law,” Kim said. “We have moved in a direction where a ruthless economy that benefits few has taken over the common welfare of the greater community.”
Rage aside, Kim’s hands’ are tied — as are those of every member of the Board of Supervisors — in addressing this widower’s fate. The reason? California law prohibits San Francisco from moving its rent-control date forward from 1979. The city cannot protect someone whose leaseholding spouse dies, nor can it establish limits on how much landlords can increase rent after a unit becomes vacant. A city that can spend months debating the minutest of issues long ago lost the ability to adjust its own rent-control laws. No city in California can, of course, but San Francisco is ground zero for the affordability emergency.
This November, California voters will decide if cities can get those rights back. But what San Francisco legislators would choose to do with such newfound freedom remains to be seen. San Francisco prides itself on being progressive, and when it comes to social issues — gay marriage, safe injection sites, immigrant rights — it is. But the city has historically leaned more moderate on issues that involve corporations, and with money from developers pouring into political campaigns, the likelihood of S.F. smoothly adopting tenant-focused legislation in the wake of a Costa-Hawkins repeal is slim at best.
San Francisco’s housing crisis may seem like a 21st-century phenomenon, but as far back as the 1960s, tenants were organizing for their rights in the face of rising rents. As the spirit of the Civil Rights movement and grassroots activism spread across the country, advocates fought back against rent-gouging and wrongful evictions. In the 1980s, they tried on several occasions to limit the percentage by which a landlord could raise rents once the occupant moved on, only to have the bills die on the desk of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
Feeling the heat, real estate moguls plotted a statewide law to silence tenant advocates’ push for vacancy control once and for all. Democratic State Senator (and now Congressman) Jim Costa and Republican Assemblymember Phil Hawkins introduced the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, and in 1995, Republican Governor Pete Wilson signed it into law.
Under Costa-Hawkins, any city housing stock built before 1995 was deemed eligible for rent control, unless a prior date had been set. San Francisco’s was at 1979 when Costa-Hawkins passed, so that’s where it’s stayed for 39 years. The law exempted all single-family houses and condos from rent-control and banned vacancy control altogether.
In the decades since, the city has reached a housing crisis of epic proportions, and unchecked rents have made San Francisco a nationwide laughingstock. The specter of dozens of people lining up to apply for $3,000 studios as soon as they open up has become all too common.
Costa-Hawkins quickly grew outdated. In 1979, the average two-bedroom apartment went for $435 a month. Adjust for inflation, and that’s $1,007 today, according to the San Francisco Rent Board. Additionally, the late 1970s were when the city’s postwar population bottomed out, making housing comparatively plentiful. There are now 210,000 more people living here than there were in 1980.”