Proposition M - Tenant Harassment

Voter Guide
November 1, 2008
This measure appeared on the November 2008 San Francisco ballot.
 

What it does

Proposition M would make four changes to the City's Residential Rent Stabilization Code, which covers the approximately 154,000 housing units in San Francisco governed by rent-control laws. These units would be subject to the provisions in Prop. M.

1. It would add to the definition of "housing service"

Prop. M would add a new provision to the definition of "housing services" to include "quiet enjoyment of the premises, without harassment by the landlord." This is in addition to other housing services that the tenant has by agreement with the landlord, such as electricity, heat, water, laundry, storage, etc. Defining "quiet enjoyment" as a housing service provides a legal hook to enable the Residential Rate Stabilization and Arbitration Board to reduce rent when that service is violated.

2. It would add new definitions of harassment of tenants by landlords, agents, employees of landlord or contractors

Prop. M would add new provisions to the definition of tenant harassment. Under current law, harassment is defined in a general way to focus on acts by owners that cause or intend to cause a legal tenant to vacate a unit or surrender his or her rights in relation to legal occupancy of a unit. Prop. M would eliminate this definition of harassment and replace it with a new section of the Rent Code titled "Tenant Harassment," with the following types of behavior that would constitute harassment:

  • Interfering in tenants' rights in their enjoyment of peace, quiet and privacy.
  • Threatening the tenant by words, gestures or physical harm
  • Attempting to influence the tenant to vacate a unit by using threats and intimidation, verbal abuse, a gesture or physical harm
  • Refusing to accept or acknowledge receipt of tenants' rent payment, or refusing to cash a rent check for more than 30 days
  • Requesting information that violates a tenant's rights to privacy, including the tenant's residential citizenship status or Social Security number
  • Continuing to offer payments to vacate a unit after a tenant has notified the landlord in writing that he or she no longer wishes to receive further offers of payment to vacate
  • Failing to perform repairs and maintenance required by law, not using due diligence in completing repairs, or not sufficiently minimizing the exposure to noise, dust, mold and so on when performing repairs

3. It would provide new recourse for tenants who are experiencing harassment from their landlords.

Prop. M would enable tenants who have suffered from harassment as defined in the new parts of the Rent Code to file a petition with the Rent Board for a reduction in rent.

4. It would change the penalties to landlords who are proven to be harassing their tenants.

Prop. M would provide for civil and criminal penalties as well as injunctions against landlords who are proven to harass their tenants. The criminal penalty for conviction would be a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment in San Francisco County Jail for up to six months, or both. In addition, the measure includes penalties for each offense of not less than three times the actual damages suffered by the tenant, including mental or emotional distress, or $1,000, whichever is more.

Why it is on the ballot

Proposition M is an ordinance that could have been passed by the Board of Supervisors. The proponents did not believe they could secure the necessary eight votes at the Board of Supervisors to overturn a likely mayoral veto. Instead of pursuing the legislative route, they chose instead to introduce their proposal as an ordinance with six co-sponsors prior to the June deadline for introduction of ballot measures for November. That approach allowed them to modify the measure during June and July prior to submitting it onto the ballot. Ultimately, it was placed onto the ballot with seven votes. Under state law, a majority of the legislative body can place most measures directly before voters.

This measure is a response, in part, to recent allegations that several real estate companies are harassing tenants in key San Francisco residential buildings. The allegations suggest that landlords are harassing tenants to get them to vacate their units, thereby allowing the landlords to raise rents to market rates on subsequent tenants, or to avoid the costly and time consuming eviction process required under California's Ellis Act. The Ellis Act provides mechanisms for landlords to evict all tenants and remove properties from the rental market.

Pros

Arguments in favor of Prop. M:

  • There have been recent examples of landlords and their representatives harassing tenants for the purposes of getting them to vacate units, which would allow the landlords to increase the rent to market rates. This measure would expand the types of actions deemed harassing to tenants, which could result in a reduction of such behavior.
  • This measure is needed to clarify the recourse options for tenants suffering from harassment. It would provide an immediate recourse that could result in a reduction in rent.
  • The current recourse for tenants suffering from harassment requires them to live with harassment until it is actionable in a court of law. This requires the tenant to develop a long list of grievances, such as a loss of work, the cost of seeing a psychiatrist and so on. This measure provides a more direct and simple way for tenants to demonstrate that they are the victims of harassment by landlords.
  • There has been a loss of rent controlled housing stock through conversion to tenancies in common, often through buyouts by landlords. This measure would give a tool to tenants to potentially slow this change.
  • This measure would increase the bargaining power of tenants who are approached by a landlord seeking to buy them out of their unit. Should the tenants claim harassment by their landlord, they have additional leverage, which could result in an increased payment by a landlord who seeks to empty a unit but wants to avoid the limitations of the laws governing evictions undertaken to allow the owner of a property to move in.

Cons

Arguments against Prop. M:

  • This measure might be constitutionally unlawful, given that it is an infringement on the free speech of landlords. Harsh words or other disagreements between a landlord and a tenant do not necessarily equate with harassment. Yet under this measure, such speech is defined as tenant harassment, without any comparable definition of landlord harassment.
  • Prop. M is a one-sided measure, as it includes no provisions to define harassment by tenants of other tenants, or by tenants of their landlord. It also has no recourse for landlords to go to the Rent Board when they have a tenant who is harassing them or other tenants.
  • If there are misuses of power by certain landlords, they should be specifically targeted, as opposed to using a blunt tool that affects all rent-controlled properties in the City. Other cities with similar laws focus such harassment laws only on large buildings.
  • This measure is unnecessary, as there is already sufficient recourse for tenants suffering from harassment. Civil and criminal laws already protect tenants — and all people — from certain threats and intimidation, as well invasion of privacy. There is no need to make such changes to the Rent Code.
  • This measure unfairly treats landlords as criminals by including criminal penalties for the harassment, much of which is subjective.

SPUR’s analysis

Proposition M presents three main policy questions. First, is the recourse for tenants who suffer landlord harassment sufficient today? If not, what is the right way to provide tenants with proper recourse when they are facing harassment? And finally, are there negative consequences to broadly defining harassment of tenants by landlords, including the criminal penalties for landlords?

We recognize that there are many examples of harassment by landlords that are egregious and should be stopped. But we also believe that the current rent-control laws are sufficient in most circumstances. If there are misuses of power by certain landlords, those landlords should be targeted specifically, instead of seeking a broad change that affects all rent-controlled properties in the City.

While we want to ensure an equitable environment between landlords and tenants in San Francisco, we think that Prop. M redefines the rules in a way that is too subjective.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. M.