Editor’s notes

Pub date May 10, 2011
WriterTim Redmond
SectionEditors Notes


I’m tired of stories about poor San Francisco landlords. Because residential landlords in San Francisco have a great gig — and almost none have any right to complain about it.

The latest tale appeared in The New York Times May 1, with a longer version in the Bay Citizen the same day. It involves Wayne Koniuk, who owns a building on Divisadero Street. He has a shop where he makes prosthetic devices and two units upstairs.

Koniuk inherited the building from his father. He cleared out one of the units and moved in one of his sons. Now he wants to evict the tenant in the remaining unit — Robert Murphy, a senior citizen and retired union worker living on a fixed income — so he can move in his other son. Turns out that’s not easy. Koniuk is upset, and the Times presents his case: after all, Koniuk owns the building. Why can’t his children live there?

It’s an interesting question that drives a lot of passions in this town (the Bay Citizen has almost 100 comments on the story; my blog post on the subject has 65). And it gets to the heart of what rent control and regulations on property and land use are about.

See, by law — and public policy — the fact that Koniuk owns the building and Murphy rents is largely irrelevant. A long-term tenant in a protected class (in this case, someone over 60) who pays the rent on time every month and has created no nuisance has a right to stay there, except in limited circumstances. Yes, that’s an infringement on the “ownership” right of the landlord — but those rights are already strictly limited. I own a house — but not the right to demolish it, or the right to build a second unit in the basement and rent it out, or the right to add three stories to the top, or the right to turn it into a gas station or a Burger King. I knew those things when I bought the place — and if I didn’t, I should have. In San Francisco — a dense city with tight zoning laws and a legally certified housing crisis — property owners have limited rights.

They also have low property taxes (under Prop. 13), and the value of their investments keeps rising. Not a bad deal at all.

When you buy, or inherit, a building with a tenant who qualifies for protection under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, you don’t have the right to raise the rent more than a certain percentage every year. And you don’t have the right to evict the person, except for what the law calls just cause. (Just cause, by the way, typically does allow eviction to move in a relative — but it’s harder if you’ve already done one such eviction and if the tenant is a senior or disabled.)

Koniuk has a place to live (in Belmont); both his sons have places to live. They are, by definition, better off than Murphy, who is facing the prospect of no place to live at all. I’m not shedding any tears for the poor landlord.