Earthquake safety legislation could hit renters hard

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Pending legislation that would require seismic retrofitting of thousands of properties at the building owners' expense could hit renters harder than anyone, causing evictions and increasing rents by up to 10 percent, impacts that tenant advocates are trying to get the Mayor’s Office and sponsoring Supervisors David Chiu and Scott Wiener to address.  

As stated in the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program (ESIP) Workplan, retrofit costs are expected to range from $10,000 to $20,000 per dwelling unit. In a five-unit building, this could add up to as much as $100,000. According to a public statement by Mayor Ed Lee, before the first retrofit is required, they will “develop financial incentives and assistance programs to help defray costs for property owners.”

But with apartment owners allowed to pass the cost of the work on to their tenants -- a class of San Franciscans already being hit with rising rents, a wave of evictions, and legislation that would encourage more conversation of apartments into condos -- this earthquake safety measure could make their situation even worse.

“We have concerns about this, mainly that landlords will be able to pass on the costs to tenants and that landlords will use it as a pretext to evict long-term tenants with affordable rents, so we’ll be working to increase tenant protections in this plan,” says Ted Gullicksen from the San Francisco Tenants Union.

According to the San Francisco Rent Board (SFRB) website, for seismic work that is required by law, 100 percent of the capital improvement cost may be passed through to the tenants, regardless of property size, over a period of 20 years. The increases are subject to an annual limitation of 10 percent of the tenant’s base rent. Gullicksen says that rent increases will be up to $100 a month for many tenants, which is on top of the annual 1.9 percent increase landlords are allowed to impose in rent-controlled apartments.

Another worry for long-term tenants is the possibility of eviction. The SFRB also states some of the just cause evictions these landlords could use would be “…non-payment or habitual late payment of rent… to perform capital improvements which will make the unit temporarily uninhabitable while the work is being done, and… to perform substantial rehabilitation of a building that is at least 50 years old, provided that the cost of the proposed work is at least 75 percent of the cost of new construction.” This would mean rent increases and nearly any construction could be the reason a long-term tenant would be evicted.

This seismic retrofitting could drive up rent prices around the city and be one more obstacle tenants have to face. As Gullicksen said, “I think the mayor and sponsors don’t understand the impact this will have on tenants, so we will look to educate them and press for amendments to lower the rent increases.”