Can you get money from your landlord if he wrongfully used an owner move-in eviction?
Maybe. An investigative report by NBC Bay Area suggests that it’s relatively easy. But be forewarned: you as a tenant will likely have hoops to jump through.
Are landlords acting wrongfully?
First, a bit about the investigative report. The NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit in an article dated November 16, 2016 found that San Francisco landlords may have wrongfully evicted hundreds of tenants.
The Investigative Unit did six months of research into evictions that were supposedly the result of an owner move-in. They interviewed over 100 people to determine whether landlords or their family members were actually living in the homes in which they had used an owner move-in eviction.
Owner move-in evictions, one of the sixteen Just Cause evictions in San Francisco, has some specific legal requirements that must be met, as I have written in earlier blogs. One requirement is that the landlord or an approved relative must move into your apartment within three months. Another requirement is at the time the landlord gives you the notice, the landlord or the approved relative must intend to live in your apartment for at least 36 months.
A favored eviction method
Owner move-in as a form of Just Cause evictions have increased dramatically in the past few years. According to the San Francisco Rent Board, from March 1, 2015 through February 29, 2016, there were 417 owner move-in evictions, up from 343 the previous year. That’s an increase of 22%.
From March 1, 2014 through February 28, 2015, there were 273 owner move-in evictions. That was an increase of 26% from 2013/2014 to 2014/2015.
Why this is such a favored choice for landlords is a subject of an upcoming blog. But with the rising number of this eviction method, some landlords may be informing tenants that they are moving in and then, after the unit is vacate, rent the apartment to a new tenant at a significantly higher rate.
Wrongful acts by landlords
I’ve seen the wrongful use of this type of eviction with my clients and their landlords. The NBC Investigative Unit found it’s fairly widespread. They estimate that 1 in 4 evictions using an owner move-in is fraudulent.
I’ve also known what the Investigative Unit discovered, that enforcement provisions are rarely used to guard against misuse of this eviction type. The Investigative Unit article reported while the San Francisco Rent Board submits a random sampling of 10% of owner move-in notices to the district attorney’s office, in nearly 10 years not a single landlord has been prosecuted for fraudulent use of an owner move-in eviction.
The district attorney’s office told the Investigative Unit that it’s extremely difficult to prove a landlord “intended to commit fraud.” However, I suspect that the district attorney’s office, like many governmental agencies, is simply overloaded with work.
A significant case in favor of tenants
Last year, an important case regarding an owner move-in eviction was heard by the California Court of Appeal and decided in favor of tenants. In Mak v. City of Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board the Maks, the landlords, initially gave Burns, their tenant, an owner move-in notice that James Mak was going to occupy Ms. Burns’ home. The tenant eventually signed papers presented by the Maks, which included a statement saying the notice would be withdrawn. The Maks then re-rented the units to the Ziems at market rent.
The Maks’ legal position was that since their former tenant had signed a paper that the notice was withdrawn, they did not have to actually go through with the owner move-in and could re-rent to new tenants. The Court of Appeal’s opinion was that without that initial notice, the former tenant would never have entered into discussions about moving. Therefore, the owner move-in notice counted.
The City of Berkeley has a regulation that states, in essence, if the owner used an owner move-in eviction notice and then does not actually move in, the owner must rent the apartment to the new tenants at the previous rental rates, plus increases allowed by the Rent Board. Thus, the Ziems, who were initially paying $2,395 per month, had their rent reduced to $1,074 per month.
Similar in San Francisco
San Francisco has a similar regulation for rent-controlled apartments that was enacted on November, 2015. This regulation freezes the rent a landlord can charge for an apartment if they use an owner move-in to evict a tenant.
For the first 36 months, if the landlord doesn’t move in, the landlord must offer the apartment back to the former tenant if that tenant has notified the landlord of her desire to move back into the apartment and has given the landlord her contact information. For the first five years after the eviction, the landlord must rent the apartment at the former rate with approved increases by the Rent Board.
Can you win big?
So what could you do if you suspect that your landlord used an owner move-in eviction on the former tenant of your home and then did not move in?
There’s two sources that you can easily check that track the use of the owner move-in evictions. The San Francisco Tenants Union site has an Excel spreadsheet that lists units from 2010 through 2014. The Investigative Unit article has an interactive map that you can check by scrolling over it.
The Investigative Unit article also has a link to a .pdf complaint that you can file with the San Francisco Rent Board. It’s not as easy as it seems, however. The form itself is seven pages long.
You might consider going to an experienced tenant attorney if you believe you were wrongfully evicted or if you are living in an apartment in which the landlord had wrongfully used an owner move-in eviction. An experienced tenant attorney can help you build your case, which could include the use of a private investigator.
Know your rights. Protect yourself.