Landlord appears to be looking for pretexts to evict me, what to do?
February 2, 2016 4:07 PM   Subscribe

I live in a rent-controlled apartment in the Bay Area. Since I moved in 5-6 years ago, rents have gone up by about 50%. Last year a property management company bought the building, and they clearly want me out. First they tried to buy me off, now they've sent me a bogus warning about how smoking in the apartment (which I don't do) is grounds for eviction. How do I make this stop?

The first shot over the bow was a couple of months ago when I got an email from the management company (not personalized, but ostensibly sent to a list of tenants) offering $10,000 if I would move out by June. I ignored this, since the wording was along the lines of "please get in touch if you'd like to discuss this further". A few weeks later the same email again, which I again ignored, then a third with the same offer but this time specifically asking for a response. I emailed back that I wasn't interested. Within a few hours I get a reply asking (this is the actual wording) "Is there any amount that would make it worth your while". I replied declining politely.

That was last week. Today out of the blue I get a long email from them saying that there have been complaints about tenants smoking in the building -- "regarding cigarette butts that are being tossed in the common areas and the odor of cigarette smoke also lingering in the common areas" -- and that this is illegal in my city and a violation of the lease (both of which are true), and constitutes grounds for eviction. (Some actual wording: "if you are smoking or are having visitors smoking, please stop immediately. Any types of violations regarding your lease is [sic] grounds for immediate eviction. ... If you do not cease smoking in your unit, it will likely force us to begin eviction proceedings. This will not only impact your living situation, but you and your cosigner's tenancy reference and your credit. So, please understand this is a serious matter." There's more of this along similar lines.) The email also states that "smoking can damage the paint in the apartment almost always causing us to have to repaint the entire unit upon move-out" and that the cost of repainting would be deducted from my deposit.

I don't smoke, and I don't have guests who smoke. In the years I've lived here I've never seen a cigarette butt or smelled smoke in the common areas. There are only four units in the building, I know all my neighbors and I'm pretty sure none of them smoke. There could not have been any complaints about smoking, so I conclude that the managers are looking for pretexts to try to evict me.

How do I nip this in the bud? I'm already a model tenant, pay rent on time and have never had any conflicts with neighbors or landlords before. I know they can't actually evict me for smoking in the apartment when I don't smoke, but they're obviously out to get me and I want them off my back. What do I do?
posted by zeri to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Document everything - print and keep copies of the emails. I would reply nicely to the email that you have not personally noticed anyone smoking, and that you do not personally smoke, nor would you allow guests to smoke.

Keep your responses short and do not share "extra" information.

Finally, I would look for a local renters rights organization - they should be able to help you if things go sour...
posted by NoDef at 4:21 PM on February 2, 2016 [21 favorites]

I would look at the resources provided by the San Francisco Tenants Union here and here.

Was the email about the smoking sent just to you or to everyone? It sounds like it was aimed at everyone, not at you specifically. I would be weary of escalating too quickly, but you could say you do not smoke nor have you ever smoked and you have never had a guest that smokes, so there is a written trail of your denial. But if they pester you again, you can call them out of making up bogus claims to get rid of you. Save all the emails.

I wonder if you should look around at the market. Maybe you could actually find something reasonably priced and accept a buyout. But it sounds like maybe you've already researched it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:24 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: To add to NoDef's good advice, I would also recommend that you get in touch with your neighbors and make sure that you are all sharing information as to what moves are being made by management. You should also make sure you are documenting your rental payments, however that is most convenient. When I was in a similar situation, I sent my rent checks via certified mail. I am not sure what it is like where you are living, but where I was at the time, you could be evicted easily for a late payment. And my landlord was looking for any reason to evict.

I don't want to scare you, but they may escalate in a variety of ways to get you to move. Hopefully they won't, but you should get prepared and make sure you know exactly what your rights are as a tenant, and what causes they can evict you on. Clearly they are attempting to use anything they can to get you out (the weird smoking thing, totally bogus). And talk to your neighbors, there is strength in numbers in this situation.
posted by nanook at 4:34 PM on February 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

Goose! Golden Egg!

Decide on a reasonable amount and take it if the offer to move out comes up again.

I would not not not reply to this email. Think about getting a lawyer. They are deliciously edging into harrassment territory if they are not already firmly there. You really might want to contact a few lawyers and position yourself appropriately. They def def def want you out at this point, it's happening. My suggesting is you prepare to get the most possible for your inconvenience.
posted by jbenben at 4:35 PM on February 2, 2016 [18 favorites]

Your neighbor's are now your negotiation adversaries - they're getting the same offers and threats you are - someone may even be making false complaints to help the management company. Anyone new in the building? How do you know that person is a real tenant and not someone working on behalf of the management company? Be wary of tipping your hand to anyone, or anyone who might unwisely repeat your words to the wrong folks.

You should also think about how to find out if there are plans to demo your building or otherwise convert it. If nothing official is filed, that's hard, but you can look into the history of the new owners. If they are developers, well, that tells you a lot about how to proceed. You need to know how much the building is worth and how much any proposed projects are worth. This will tell you how much wiggle room you have, and how much to hold out for.

If you want a protracted fight - fine. But if you can get a nice healthy payout and move, do that. Once you know what you are really fighting about, you'll know how to proceed.
posted by jbenben at 4:43 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing that I'd both document and contact a tenant's rights group (and politely respond that you don't smoke, don't allow smoking, and are so glad they are making sure this important measure is enforced), AND I'd start negotiating for your payout and looking elsewhere.

Some fights are worth it. But these folks are clearly looking to get out their low paying tenants and jack up prices in the building. You cannot make this stop for good. So protect yourself from wrongful eviction and try to get paid as you find another place to live.
posted by bearwife at 4:57 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

FWIW my parents got the same escalating offers and escalating harassment from the landlord of their rent-controlled apartment. The money they got from the landlord paid the downpayment on their Manhattan co-op.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:00 PM on February 2, 2016 [13 favorites]

I'd say begin investigating the golden egg options. When is the optimum time to negotiate? Paying for a legal consult by a lawyer that has current and extensive expertise in the area is probably well worth a few hundred for the information.
posted by sammyo at 5:25 PM on February 2, 2016

I hate to say it, but take the money and run, because they're not gonna stop harassing you and escalating if they really want everyone out and actually asked you to name your price. Eventually it's gonna be all stick and no carrot.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:31 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

I found the Nolo Press book California Tenants' Rights to be pretty useful.
posted by ktkt at 5:34 PM on February 2, 2016

The only way to nip this in the bud is to negotiate a payout that is greater than what you would get in an Ellis Act eviction or, just maybe, get a tenant's lawyer to write a C&D which I expect would cost up to $500. But negotiating with them, possibly using a lawyer, is likely the best option, as you have greater freedom and a better hand negotiating (you can offer them the certainty of the apartment being free on day X with no legal trouble), than you do waiting for them to come up with a bogus but plausible Ellis Act eviction reason. Just my opinion, talk to a local tenant lawyer for the real scoop, because home and $$ are on the line here.
posted by zippy at 5:39 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the people saying take the money and run maybe don't live in the Bay Area? It will probably be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to find something of comparable quality in as good of a location in San Francisco right now. So unless you are looking to relocate for other reasons, I would not give up a rent controlled apartment in SF without a really serious fight. And the good news is that the laws there are very friendly toward tenants, so you have more leverage than you might elsewhere. I would document everything and also get in touch with a tenants rights organization ASAP.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:39 PM on February 2, 2016 [39 favorites]

I think the people saying take the money and run maybe don't live in the Bay Area?

Oh, for sure, but "take the money" means take enough money to make up for the loss of a rent controlled place, which should be much larger than what an Ellis Act eviction would pay. I don't know what's reasonable, but I'd guess that 18 months of the difference between your current rent and market rate would be a minimum.
posted by zippy at 6:17 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hit the Tenants Union for advice. Bring all the documentation you have, they'll help you with a plan of action.

My friend in a rent controlled apartment has been there for 30 years. Trust and believe they'll be taking him out of there on a stretcher.

Stay put.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:28 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you would consider leaving, I'd try to figure out what this rent differential is worth to them in net present dollars, and see if some portion of that (in the 25-65% range) would make it worth your while to move.

In addition to looking at the Ellis Act eviction amounts, I'd look at how investors would calculate the net present value of a recurring payment. You could look at recently sold multifamily properties on redfin or zillow. At one point, the property information included the rents for that property. I'd create a table comparing rents to sales prices. I did this once and was amazed at how consistent the ratio was. YMMV.
posted by slidell at 6:40 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can probably just google "rental yield" to get that number.
posted by JPD at 7:00 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hmmm I live in New York in a similar situation. I'm sure the laws are different in the Bay Area. I have a big apartment that would rent for double what I pay if it was market rent. I am really happy about this because I can live here for the rest of my life and I know what I'll pay. My landlord harasses all of us tenants and how we handle it is by bonding together and demanding that they fix things or stop harassing us in whatever particular ways they are attempting. It is kind of a constant battle but I have really enjoyed getting to know my fellow tenants. I feel like we have become friends and have developed the sort of relationship my parents had with our neighbors in the small town I grew up in.

As a group we are extremely aggressive and litigious. We make it extraordinarily difficult for them to harass us. They are a big company and I'm sure they think to themselves let's not fuck with that building, we'll just get the people In the next building out.

If you are thinking of taking a buyout you need to think about how much they will make off that apartment for the rest of your life. (In New York we can leave our rent stabilized apartments to our children - so I consider that in my calculation). For me even though I pay 1800 a month I would need like a 500k buyout so I could buy a big apartment or a small house in my nice neighborhood. They would never go for that. But the value is nothing to do with the value at eviction or 18 months. It's about getting me the stability I currently have.

But shit is annoying it's true. But it's also kind of cool. Like I'm glad to be in the tenants rights struggle with my neighbors. I really wish you good luck. I know that rent stabilized or rent controlled housing stock is disappearing at a great rate in the Bay Area. I feel really glad that I'm fighting to keep my little piece of it in New York.

Good luck to you. Seriously!
posted by goneill at 7:05 PM on February 2, 2016 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, taking a buyout is basically going to amount to a long-term net loss for the reasons goneill describes. There's no way I'd find a comparable apartment for less than 150% of what I'm paying now, and there's a fair chance I'll be living in this area for many years or for the rest of my life, so even if I got them to double their offer I'd still be losing money after a couple years.
posted by zeri at 7:10 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you should give them a buyout number that lets you find something comparable to own and if they pass so be it.
posted by JPD at 7:24 PM on February 2, 2016

I think the people saying take the money and run maybe don't live in the Bay Area?

Seriously! A lot of responses here obviously do not understand the situation. In the current market, there are rumors of landlords setting their own buildings on fire to get tenants out. The number of rent controlled units in the bay area is capped, and the ones that exist are under attack from landlords and large investment companies with dollar signs in their eyes.

I too live in a rent controlled apartment in the bay, and even though I've only been in this current spot for 4 years it would cost me triple in rent to move to a comparable apartment. And that apartment would definitely not be in my current neighborhood, and it would almost certainly not have rent control. $10K wouldn't even cover a new security deposit, much less moving and the rent increase! The amount of money for a buy out to be worth it would have to be substantially larger by several magnitudes. Like, bay area house down payment size.

Your landlord is trying to create a paper trail, however bullshit, to kick you out. If this were me I would take it very seriously, and my next move would be to start creating my own paper trail.

Whether you want a buy out or to stay, you need a tenants lawyer immediately. If I got a letter like this I would only communicate with the management company through a lawyer.

Good luck!
posted by bradbane at 8:21 PM on February 2, 2016 [13 favorites]

As others say, document everything and get an attorney. I've had friends successfully evicted illegally. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:58 PM on February 2, 2016

So don't think in terms of getting them to double their (stupid, tiny) offer. Think in terms of what number would be worth it, double that number, and ask for that. Given the rent environment in SF they may even pay it.
posted by nat at 10:55 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

A lot of responses here obviously do not understand the situation. In the current market, there are rumors of landlords setting their own buildings on fire to get tenants out. The number of rent controlled units in the bay area is capped, and the ones that exist are under attack from landlords and large investment companies with dollar signs in their eyes.

I think a lot of the responses here do understand that situation and are coming from the point of view of "do you want to get an upfront cash payout or wait until they burn down your apartment?"
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:39 PM on February 2, 2016 [13 favorites]

I would hold your ground. They will eventually break the law somehow. It's not as though they have any legal basis to evict you. You will never find a comparable apartment.

The PMO bought the building based on its belief that you could be bought out / driven out so they could up rents. I bet next they will announce charges and remove common use items. Ask them if they would go TIC, it will give you some insight into whether they are looking at moving to sorry ten student rental. I recommend you meet with a tenants rights group.
posted by parmanparman at 12:47 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you should give them a buyout number that lets you find something comparable to own and if they pass so be it.

Even assuming today's rent payment becomes tomorrow's mortgage payment, my guess is that'd be $100-200k. I'd be surprised if they could go that high, but who knows. It's worth calculating.

One red flag to me is the warning about repainting everything. After a certain number of years, that's well within normal wear and tear. (It looks like it's two years, found here, with a citation at footnote 244.) Now, most likely, it's a form letter, with that clause intended for tenants whom it would be appropriate to charge. And as a landlord, I have heard that the repainting following a smoker can require extra coats. That sentence might not be a bad sign, but it might be.

I personally wouldn't start bleeding out money on a lawyer just yet, but I would email back a categorical denial and get on the record your suspicions that this is not in good faith. A draft:
I do not smoke, either in the apartment or outside of it. I do not have guests who smoke. I have always paid rent on time and care for this apartment as if it were my own.

I am surprised to hear that there have been complaints. In the years I've lived here I've never seen a cigarette butt or smelled smoke in the common areas. None of my neighbors have mentioned any concerns to me.

Although I do not plan to move out soon, deducting the cost of paint from my security deposit at the time that I do would not be appropriate. I have lived in this apartment for X years, since 20xx, longer than the useful life of a coat of paint. Further, the unit was not freshly painted at the time I moved in.

I received your letters dated X, Y, and Z offering me a buyout to move out of this rent-controlled apartment. Having declined those, now I receive an eviction threat that bears no relation to my actions or my experience in the property. I hope this will not become a pattern, as I had a positive relationship with [previous owner] and look forward to a continued cordial business relationship with you.
I'm not a lawyer, so take my advice with the grain of salt it merits. It could be well worth the $400 or whatever it costs to get a lawyer to reply for you instead. I'd personally start looking (and saving) for one, but not officially start paying a lawyer until they tacked a notice on the door to "cure [your breach of the lease] or quit." But you might only have three days to reply under that scenario, so you would have to do some scrambling at that time. If your income qualifies you for legal aid, then I'd get their help right away.
posted by slidell at 5:01 AM on February 3, 2016 [13 favorites]

If you're not attached to the apartment for any reason besides the rent control (i.e. if it wouldn't bother you to be living somewhere comparable if it were the same price), I'd say you should push back with a buyout proposal that takes 5-10 years of rental price differential into account. That number is what you're going to cost them by staying there, and you'd probably be surprised how much it is worth to them to get you out of there. If your apartment is renting for 2/3 of market value and you're in San Francisco proper, you're costing them thousands of dollars a month, and that number is going to get worse over time. They tried to lowball you, and now are upping the ante, so I'd say ask them for $250K (which you will seriously cost them over the next 5 years) and use it as a down payment.
posted by Mayor West at 5:38 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yes, $100K to $200K was exactly the type of number I was thinking of.

I'm from Manhattan, as someone noted above, this is a thing that happens. It's the only amount I would consider moving for, frankly.
posted by jbenben at 10:21 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I would talk to either a tenants rights organization or an attorney before responding in any way. Seriously.

As the child of former landlords of many years, I can tell you that evictions are two things from that side. Expensive, and time consuming. What they're angling at here is the equivalent of pulling a weapon during an argument.

You need professional assistance that's versed in the local laws. And you need to document all of this.

This probably isn't over, and in Seattle(which is getting similarly hosed in the housing market department) its escalated to hard to call out or litigate things like remodeling other apartments at 6am for days and filling the hallways with dust and construction debris, or other intentionally disruptive activities that have some veil of "we're just doing maintenance!" like shutting off the water repeatedly with the required legal notice... But just constantly.

If you're going to fight this, be prepared for dirty pool, is I guess what I'm saying. I would though because fuck that. Just on principle even.
posted by emptythought at 11:41 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would hold your ground. They will eventually break the law somehow. It's not as though they have any legal basis to evict you. You will never find a comparable apartment

With the amount of money at stake, landlords can do a mix of legal, legal but immoral, and illegal but hard to prove in court without spending much time and effort tactics. So whatever your situation, talk to a lawyer who knows SF renter's rights.
posted by zippy at 1:23 PM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

You guys who think it's 100-200K to buy an apartment in the Bay Area are not aware of what's been going on with housing prices around the Bay. In 2015 purchase prices were about $500/sq ft in Oakland and well over $1000/sq ft in SF, and prices are still rising.

How on earth would you move for that amount of money in Manhattan? The price there is $1500/sq ft for old buildings and $3K/sq ft for new construction.
posted by gingerest at 5:51 PM on February 4, 2016

You would only move if the payout was enough to fund a down payment on a similar place with a payment close to their current rent tax adjusted.
posted by JPD at 6:50 PM on February 4, 2016

You guys who think it's 100-200K to buy an apartment in the Bay Area are not aware of what's been going on with housing prices around the Bay.

I said "assuming today's rent payment becomes tomorrow's mortgage payment." So, maybe OP puts $200k down on a 1200 sf 2 BR $500k condo (purchased for $450k in October) in Oakland's Uptown district and ends up with a monthly payment around $2000. Or shoot, last August, someone bought a 600 sf 1 BR in Oakland's Adams Point for $265ish, so put $100k (or now, more like $150-200k) down on something like that and pay, what, $1100-1200 a month? That is not out of the ballpark for what a 1 BR apartment like that was renting for 5-6 years ago. We don't know what OP is paying now and whether "Bay Area" means downtown San Francisco or Fairfield or what. But sure, it's possible that the differential is even worse.
posted by slidell at 9:40 PM on February 4, 2016

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