Susan Prentice

Where would we be without rent control?


OPINION This year marks the 30th anniversary of rent control in San Francisco. On June 13, 1979, the Board of Supervisors passed a law that was seen by tenant activists as a fairly weak version of rent control. The supervisors were acting under pressure from landlords, who were lobbying them to hurry up and pass a law before the November election, when landlords feared San Francisco voters would enact a stricter version.

So the supervisors went with a middle-of-the-road measure, but its passage was still a milestone. Today, San Franciscans in rent-controlled apartments shudder to think where they would be without this basic protection. Many would be priced out of the rental market — and out of the city altogether.

The original legislation has been amended many times to limit annual rent increases, to expand who is covered by rent control, and to give increased protections from eviction to seniors, disabled people, the catastrophically ill, and long-term tenants. To curb the use of Ellis Act evictions by real estate speculators, buildings where seniors or disabled tenants have been evicted are now barred from condo conversion. In the past few years, we have worked to raise mandatory relocation payments for tenants, and added increased protections against landlord harassment.

Tenants are still being pressured to leave their apartments with supposed voluntary buyouts, a type of roulette in which speculators wave cash and tenants need nerves of steel to resist the threat of little money and no apartment — or more money and no apartment. But tenants keep organizing and holding on.

The San Francisco Tenants Union, Housing Rights Committee, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and the Eviction Defense Collaborative all work with limited staff and many dedicated, inspiring volunteers to inform tenants of their rights and represent them when they need legal assistance. Tenants Together, founded last year, is now organizing tenants statewide and making progress all over California.

Sup. Eric Mar is sponsoring legislation that would give eviction protection to families with children — currently an endangered species in San Francisco. Study after study has shown the negative effect of evictions on families with children. More than half of all families with children in San Francisco live in rent-controlled apartments. A recent nationwide report named San Francisco as the major metropolitan area with the lowest number of children. In addition to tenants groups, a broad coalition of education and health groups have given their support to the Mar legislation. If you haven’t already done so, write or fax your supervisor in support of the legislation.

Meanwhile, come celebrate the 30th anniversary of rent control by stopping by one of our tenants rights counseling booths Saturday, Sept. 19 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (see for locations). Get info on our reduced price anniversary memberships and commemorative t-shirts. Then join us back at 558 Capp St., the Tenants Union office, for a barbecue, raffle, and Tenants Hall of Fame festivities where we can all celebrate 30 years of fighting for safe, fairly priced housing.

Susan Prentice is a San Francisco Tenants Union counselor/activist.