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Eye on the Ball: San Francisco Renter Harassment Guide

Welcome to another edition of Eye on the Ball. This week we’re bringing you another installment on tenants’ rights. We’ll cover how to deal with landlord harassment. Renters in this inflated rent market, especially those in rent-controlled apartments, all too commonly find themselves the target of landlords seeking to cash-in on the demand for housing by pushing out their older tenants in favor of new ones who will pay more.

(This article assumes that you have an active rental agreement and have not been evicted from your unit. For information on how to deal with eviction proceedings, see our previous article in this series.)

So, what is harassment?
Harassment occurs when your landlord actively or passively makes your residency difficult in order to coerce you into moving out. It may be obvious or subtle. A landlord may loudly bully residents or quietly allow utilities in their name to go unpaid. There are many ways to violate a tenant’s rights and disturb a tenant’s well-being. However, there are many legal protections available for tenants in San Francisco as well.
The first thing to know is that if you experience harassment, you need to talk to a tenant counselor or a lawyer. Here’s a list of organizations you can talk to for little or no cost.
I have included a list below of some common forms of harassment that are illegal. If you experience any of the following, you should document the incident and write a letter to your landlord detailing the incident and demanding that they cease their harassment immediately. If you experience forms of harassment that are not listed below, talk to a tenant counselor to see what you can do.
It is illegal for your landlord to:

  1. Enter your unit without 24 hours’ notice (in writing) for one of the following reasons: to make necessary or agreed upon repairs or services; to show the unit to prospective tenants, buyers, mortgage holders, repair persons or contractors; inspect the unit at the request of the tenant for a security deposit refund; or when there is a court order authorizing entry by the landlord.
  2. Shut off any of your utilities. If your utilities have been turned off, call the utility company and try to have them turned back on. If that doesn’t work, try the Public Utilities Commission at (415) 703-1170. If the water has been turned off, call (415) 551-4767 to get the bill put in your name.
  3. Lock you out of your unit. Under Penal Code 418, your landlord can be arrested and found guilty of a misdemeanor if they lock you out. You have a right to regain entry to the premises. If it’s legally your unit, it isn’t considered “breaking in” to gain entry unconventionally, though it is risky. Have proof of your tenancy with you and consider getting legal/law enforcement help if you feel you can.
  4. Verbally or physically harass or threaten you.
  5. Discriminate against you because of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, religion, age, marriage, pregnancy, disability, HIV/AIDS status or because you are a parent.
  6. Threaten you based on your immigration status or citizenship (which is illegal under the local rent ordinance).

Always remember to keep written records of everything so that you have the power to go to court!

  • Save copies of letters you send to your landlord.
  • Save copies of communications from your landlord (they should always be in writing, whether physical or electronic).
  • Save receipts.
  • Keep a log of what the landlord said or did to you, noting the place and date of each incident, plus any witnesses.

If the harassment continues, you might consider a Decrease in Services Petition at the Rent Board (if you are under rent control), a Small Claims Court action, or consulting with an attorney about other kinds of legal action. You have the right to file for a restraining order in Superior Court restricting when your landlord may contact you. Forms are available from the Superior Court Clerk at the Superior Courthouse on the corner of Polk and McAllister Streets.
Thank you to the SF Anti-Displacement Coalition for giving us permission to use their know-your-rights guide to create this blog series. For more information and resources, including in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Russian and Vietnamese, check out their website: www.SFADC.org.