My roommate and I were served a 6.14 rent increase notice in April last year (2019). This is the story of how we contested the increase and won without a lawyer.
A Primer on Rent Increases in San Francisco
The majority of residential rentals in San Francisco are rent controlled. One of the core tenets of rent control is a managed, typically low increase in the price of rent. Once all original tenants leave a unit, the property manager can increase the rent to market rate. Landlords have 3 tools at their disposal to increase the rent while the tenants reside in the unit:
They differ in three ways:
- Notice requirements
- Type of residency
- How the increase may be administered
A 1.21 rent increase is allowed when the original tenants no longer use the unit as their place of primary residency. The test for primary residency, or tenant in-occupancy, is well defined. The landlord must petition the rent board to increase the rent under this ordinance. Typically, there is a hearing and the tenant must defend themselves.
Ordinance 6.14 And Costa Hawkins Act
The rent of a unit can be increased, lawfully, when the original tenants no longer permanently reside or have given up lawful possession of the unit. A landlord can increase the rent 60-days after serving a 6.14 notice. Or, for the Costa Hawkins Act, no notice is required. The tenant can petition the rent board if they believe the rent increase was illegal. Contrasting this to a 1.21 rent increase, it's much easier for the landlord to administer this rent increase since they do not have to petition the rent board.
My roommate and I had been living together for about a year before we received the notice. He was the master tenant and I was the subtenant. My roommate had been spending a considerable amount of time out of state for personal and professional reasons. Our landlord found out and sent us a notice of rent increase via San Francisco rent ordinance 6.14. The increase was 80% higher than our original rate, which was unsettling to say the least.
Shortly after receiving the notice, my roommate and I petitioned the rent board to hear our contention. We gathered our resources, researched what to do, had our argument heard, and won the day.
How We Did It
Here is a list of steps we took to formulate our battle plan:
- Discuss our position with the San Francisco Tenants Union
- Research just about every similar case at the San Francisco Rent Board
- Tease out specific law and interpretations from previous disputes
- Synthesize arguments and evidence around previous disputes
- Run our thoughts by the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco
We eventually discovered that permanent residency isn't clearly defined in San Francisco ordinance. Also, we found that several previous disputes were resolved while the individual maintained two places of residency.
Another important understanding we gleaned from the previous disputes was where the burden of proof was at different times. We believed that once we could demonstrate that the rent increase was beyond the legal limit, the burden of proof would fall onto the landlord.
Evidence We Gathered
We put together a few different pieces of evidence:
1) A claim that described how much the increase in rent was over the allowed maximum.
2) Notes from roommates that one of the original tenants still resided in the unit.
3) Notes from neighbors about how often they saw the original tenants in the neighborhood.
4) Written statements from the master tenant declaring all original tenants never moved their belongings.
My roommate and I put together a list of questions we may get asked and how to answer them if we did. We spent a week testing ourselves to make sure we didn't say something that completely misrepresented our case.
The hearing was a few hours long and incredibly tense. In the beginning, we submitted our claims and evidence. We were then asked if we wanted to put ourselves under oath so that we may testify. More than a few times, we were "checked" by the judge for talking when we were not supposed to.
The landlord was represented by a legitimate attorney with experience. They didn't submit too much evidence of their own. Instead, they relied on cross examination while we were testifying to uncover something they could use as an argument.
Since we were without a lawyer, the judge would step in when the landlord's attorney was doing something out of line. This didn't happen all the time, but it did in some critical moments.
2 months later, we received notice that the hearing was in our favor. The conclusion was apparently based largely off of tenant and witness testimony. The witness in this case was me, the subtenant roommate. Basically, the judge asked my roommate and myself some questions while under oath. They were simple questions like "what kind of car does he drive?" and "Does he own any furniture in the unit?". Ultimately, answering these questions concisely and honestly probably won it for us.
What Could Have Been Different
If we were to do it again, I'd do the following different:
- The master tenant probably should not have been put under oath. Testifying and letting the other party cross examine you is not a great idea when they've submitted no evidence and they're using your testimony to uncover evidence. They'll ask all kinds of questions about your voting status, tax status, etc. Why let them pull all that into public record?
- At some point in cross examination, we agreed to provide some documents that probably were better left private. Had we had a lawyer, they probably could have advised us to simply not agree to it.
- The evidence wasn't authenticated properly. The courtroom accepted it given there is no defined standard of evidence. We got lucky... I don't think that's normal.
- The evidence, with the exception of the claim, may not have been as impactful as we thought it would be. All that really mattered at the end of the day was the we were living in the unit and could demonstrate it without too much effort. Though, I probably would still pull all the evidence together just in case.
- And finally... We should have had a lawyer represent us. It was incredibly hard to navigate and assess courtroom etiquette. The landlord's attorney nearly picked us apart. And some of the mistakes we made lead to follow-up issues (which were successfully averted, thankfully).
Below is a list of resources we used.
San Francisco Rent Board
The San Francisco Rent Board mediates disputes between tenants and landlords. They also provide public access to dispute history.
San Francisco Tenants Union
One of the first things my roommate and I did was join the San Francisco Tenants Union. They provide free counseling and a great handbook with all of the laws laid out. We went for counseling several times while we learned and polished our argument.
Housing Rights Committee
This Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco advocacy group offers counseling for tenants in need. While we were polishing our argument, we would run our thoughts by the counselors. They offered feedback and gave us constructive criticism.