Suddenly, low-income tenants could lose homes over water, garbage fees
The San Francisco City Attorney's Office has started investigating conditions at Parkmerced in the wake of housing advocates' concerns that tenants have been issued a high volume of notices warning that they could face eviction due to unpaid utility fees.
The questions surrounding back payments and pending evictions, many of which impact low-income renters, have emerged only a few months after the Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a controversial redevelopment project at the neighborhood-scale housing complex. When it was under consideration, project opponents voiced concerns that housing for low-income residents could be jeopardized under the plan if tenant protections guaranteed by the developers did not stand up in court.
"The timing of it is a little suspicious," said Tyler McMillan, executive director of the San Francisco-based Eviction Defense Collaborative. "A lot of folks suddenly are moving toward the eviction process ... right after they got approved for this big development. It all just smells really bad."
Parkmerced spokesperson PJ Johnston told the Guardian the notices had nothing to do with the development approval, and were simply a consequence of unpaid bills. "I don't think the city attorney is going to find anything of particular interest," he said. "This is an issue of a property owner telling people who owe bills that they have to pay their bills."
Stellar Management, Parkmerced's property management company, issued 196 notices this past summer and in September warning tenants that they could face eviction if they did not take steps to bring their accounts current within three days.
In some cases, back payments had piled up for more than a year, and the bills ranged from around $400 to $1,200 — a burdensome dilemma for very low income residents getting by on fixed incomes.
The issue wasn't payment of rent; most of the charges stemmed from water, sewer, and trash pick-up fees administered by a third-party billing company called American Utility Management (AUM). Parkmerced cited breach of the lease agreement as grounds for eviction.
Some tenants dispute the charges, and have told the San Francisco Rent Board and other agencies that they were surprised to receive the bills and didn't know they had past-due amounts until they were presented with the high bills.
In any case, it's an unusual situation — San Francisco tenants rarely face eviction over water or garbage bills.
A HUGE GROUNDSWELL
Many tenants have since been given a chance to set up payment plans and were granted a 45-day timeline to work out a payback system, noted San Francisco Rent Board director Delene Wolf. But not everyone was lucky enough to dodge the bullet. Since the notices went out, the Eviction Defense Collaborative has taken on cases for 14 separate eviction proceedings at Parkmerced, McMillan said.
"They are evicting a lot more people in the last couple months than they were at this time last year," McMillan noted. Wolf confirmed this, saying, "We saw a huge groundswell."
The city attorney has been responsive to advocates' concerns. "We met with the City Attorney's office, and they're collecting cases," explained Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee. "A key question is, why are these low-income renters behind?"
So far, the answer remains unclear. Tenant advocates remain skeptical that the charges are legitimate, in part because they have questions about how fees were assessed. There have also reports of monthly parking fees charged to tenants who don't own vehicles. "They're really questionable amounts ... that are years and years old," McMillan noted. "There's so much doubt about whether they owe this money."