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.
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."
Some of the 196 tenants who received warning notices claimed they didn't know they were responsible for the fees. John Martinek tried to help his friend, a 55-year-old Parkmerced resident and veteran, after he was hit with a bill totaling more than $600.
"He might've owed it, but here's the thing: They never told him anything about paying water and garbage," Martinek said. "They never once asked him, they never once said a word. They were trying to scare him, there's no question about it. They were trying shake him out of there." He said his friend had been spared from eviction thanks to legal assistance.
Johnston, meanwhile, dismissed the idea that tenants were in the dark on how much they owed. "It's patently ridiculous to suggest that residents who have signed a lease weren't aware that they had to pay their bills," he said.
In most cases, garbage charges in San Francisco are either included in the rent or are completely separate from rent, collected by a private company and can't be grounds for eviction. Water bills are typically included in monthly rent or collected by the city — and thus aren't grounds for eviction either.
Of the 14 eviction proceedings that are going forward, McMillan said, 10 involve tenants who receive Section 8 housing assistance, a federal program administered by the San Francisco Housing Authority. Of those 10, eight concerned disputed fees, he said.
There are a total of 170 Section 8 tenants at Parkmerced, according to figures cited by Megan Baker of Catholic Charities CYO, and 82 of them were among the 196 tenants who received three-day notices.
While Parkmerced previously attracted renters enrolled in the Section 8 program, Stellar stopped accepting those housing applications about a year ago, Baker said. Her organization provides emergency financial assistance for families at risk of homelessness and has been working with Parkmerced tenants since October 2009.
Baker added that she'd met with some tenants who were charged attorney's fees on top of the back-payments. "They don't have the means to pay legal costs," she said. "These very large charges are not going hand-in-hand with their monthly statements. It's all of a sudden. It leads us to think that in the process of changing management and gearing up for redevelopment, they really don't want low-income tenants."
In the wake of recent coverage about the trend of eviction notices in the Guardian and other publications (See "Low Income Tenants Face Possible Eviction at Parkmerced," Politics Blog, Oct. 7, 2011), the three-day notices have slowed, reports Wolf, of the Rent Board. "There were no notices this month," she said, referring to October, which could be a sign that management had taken a different tack under pressure from housing advocates and media scrutiny.
Shortt, of the Housing Rights Committee, noted that she had sought assistance from Board President David Chiu after her organization began working with impacted tenants. Chiu cast the swing vote on Parkmerced, sparking the ire of tenant advocates, but professed to be looking out for tenant interests.
Chiu introduced 14 pages of amendments to the Parkmerced development agreement intended to strengthen tenant protections, and used those changes to justify his support for the project. However, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force determined Nov. 1 that members of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee violated the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance when it considered Chiu's amendments, because the public wasn't provided with full documentation of the proposed changes.
Chiu's office contacted Parkmerced with questions about the eviction notices, but Shortt said she came away with the impression that the board president was not about to exert pressure on Stellar Management or Parkmerced developers over this issue. Chiu's office indicated to Shortt that they planned to collaborate with Sup. Sean Elsbernd, whose District 11 includes Parkmerced, to decide how to proceed.
"We haven't seen any evidence that this is connected to the development in any way," Judson True, Chiu's legislative aide, told the Guardian. "We're committed to working with Parkmerced, Sup. Elsbernd's office, and the residents to keep as many people in their homes as possible."
The San Francisco City Attorney's office is urging any Parkmerced tenants experiencing questionable late-payment charges to contact the Code Enforcement Hotline at 415-554-3977.