Tenants scored a victory last Friday night when Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed legislation preventing landlords from severing services from a rental unit to become law. The proposal, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, did not receive the necessary eight votes at the Board of Supervisors to override a mayoral veto, but Newsom decided to allow the measure to take effect. As a result, landlords can no longer remove parking spaces, laundry facilities, and a variety of other amenities from tenants at will. The new law eliminates one of the most common means for landlords to force tenants out of their homes, and Newsom’s approval of it reveals the way the passage of Proposition B last month may have altered the city’s political landscape.
Before the passage of Mirkarimi’s legislation, landlords could rescind services from a tenant without just cause. If a tenant lost access to storage space or a communal room, for example, their only recourse was to take their landlord to small claims court or file for a decrease in rent through the Rent Board.
The abuse of this privilege often resulted in tenants being forced out of their homes due to landlords removing vital amenities until the unit became undesirable, a tactic used by some as an alternative to the messy Ellis Act to rid buildings of long-time residents.
The new law clarifies existing law by forcing landlords to prove just cause before services can be rescinded. Tenant advocates say the new law will serve as an important protection for tenants across the city.
“This will stop one of the landlords favorite ways to harass out long-term tenants paying affordable rents,” said Ted Gullicksen of the Tenants’ Union.
While Newsom chose not to sign the legislation, he did not veto it either, a decision which ultimately allowed it to become law. This decision represents a continuance of Newsom’s newfound tacit support of pro-tenant legislation that emerged from rising Ellis Act evictions and was solidified by the passage of Prop. B.
Prop. B forced realtors to reveal the eviction history of a building to potential buyers. Before it appeared on the ballot, however, it was passed by the Board of Supervisors, along with another pro-tenant piece of legislation requiring more public process around Ellis Acts.
Newsom vetoed both pieces of legislation, prompting tenant activists to put Prop. B on the ballot. Not long before Election Day, Newsom signed major pro-tenant Ellis Act eviction protections forwarded by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, and Prop. B passed soon after.
The Mayor’s failure to veto Mirkarimi’s legislation reveals once again that Newsom has awoken to both the strength of the tenant movement and the fact that 2/3 of San Francisco remains renters. The political impact of Newsom's shift is significant.
In the 2003 Mayor's race, Newsom was most vulnerable on tenant issues and opponent Matt Gonzalez swept tenant-dominated precincts. Newsom's support of gay marriage and his alliance with labor had left tenants as the last progressive constituency with an electoral base that could build a challenge to the mayor in 2007.
But having allowed two pieces of important legislation to become law, Newsom may have prevented tenant voters from building a sense of grievance against him. It still remains to be seen, however, if Newsom has finally learned that supporting tenants is good policy and good politics.