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San Francisco rent strike: Tenants use union tactics to challenge landlords

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Autoworkers in Detroit. Actors and screenwriters in Hollywood. Teachers in Portland, Oregon.

During a wave of labor unrest over the past year, in which more than 500,000 American workers went on strike, a small group of San Franciscans brought a similar trend of activism to another area: at home.

Tenants in 65 San Francisco homes have been on rent strike, some for nearly eight months, withholding their monthly payments due to a host of issues that they say have made their living conditions difficult.

A handful of rent strikes have already taken place in New York and Los Angeles. But activists, with renewed fervor, are now trying to organize renters across the country, arguing that corporations, rather than mom-and-pop landlords, are increasingly buying up apartments and not taking care of them.

“Most tenants these days don’t know their landlord. They are nameless, faceless LLCs,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of Housing guarantee campaign, which works to create tenant unions like the one in San Francisco. “Naming and shaming doesn’t work. Rent strikes will become an even more necessary tactic.”

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San Francisco apartment building tenant Yue Lin Wu speaks with Katelynn Cao of the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee about the ongoing rent strike.
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Geary Street view from outside one of the buildings where tenants are striking against Veritas Investments in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

San Francisco has one of the highest concentrations of renters in the country, making up about two-thirds of households, a similar proportion to New York City. As a result, politicians in the famously liberal city have long viewed renters as a voting base they must court. Even though rents have fallen from pre-pandemic highs, San Francisco remains one of the most expensive cities in the country.

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In 2022, city leaders passed Union at Home, the first legislation of its kind in the country. It paves the way for tenants to form their own associations and requires landlords to negotiate with them, just as an employer must meet with unionized workers.

The law protects tenants who want to use common areas to host activities or invite advocates to speak to residents about their rights.

Within a year, tenants in 55 San Francisco buildings formed their own associations that pushed for a series of improvements, including faster repairs, lower utility fees, and translation of documents for non-speaking tenants. no English. Most associations did not go on strike.

Tenant associations exist in other cities, but do not have the leverage the city has to demand that their landlords negotiate in good faith, as San Francisco tenants do.

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Ms. Rodriguez’s 3-year-old daughter Dara watches a show while resting her feet on the plastic storage bins the family uses to protect their belongings from mold.
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Ms. Rodriguez displays a photo of the mold that was in her apartment before it was repainted in March.

In the Tenderloin neighborhood, where low-income immigrant families cluster because of relatively cheap rents, tenants have begun to organize. They live in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, filled with old, dilapidated apartments, close to open-air drug markets and homeless encampments.

Luisa Rodriguez, 38, immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 2020 with two children, now ages 9 and 18, and had a third child in San Francisco. The family lives in a small studio on the sixth floor of their building and must pay $1,600 per month. Ms. Rodriguez, who works as a cook, has not paid her landlord since June. Striking tenants pay their rent to a trust fund which is held until their demands are met.

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Ms. Rodriguez and her children sleep together in two beds pushed against a wall to put as much distance as possible between them and a space where mold continually appears.

She showed photos on her phone of green lint on the window frame that stretched along the wall. She said the virus also spread to clothes in a closet by the window, forcing her to throw away items she couldn’t afford to replace.

She showed copies of letters from a San Francisco Health Network doctor telling her landlord, “Mold is endangering the health of your tenants” and demanded immediate action.

Veritas Investments, owner of the building where the Rodriguez family lives, said workers repaired a crack in the family’s window, used drying equipment to combat water intrusion and treated, sealed and painted the window and frame to prevent mold from returning.

Even though the mold was no longer visible recently, the family wasn’t sure the problem had been resolved. Dara, 3, continues to cough at night, keeping the family awake, Ms. Rodriguez said.

The conflict highlights a big problem in San Francisco’s housing stock: older buildings that are increasingly expensive to maintain and, in a city notoriously short of housing, among the few options for low-income renters.

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Franklin Borge, a maintenance technician who often works on Veritas buildings, inspects a unit in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood.
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A tenant on rent strike at a Veritas building has been given a three-day eviction notice.

Veritas is one of San Francisco’s largest landlords and owns most of the buildings where tenant associations have declared a rent strike. His assets in the city, however, are dwindling. Like other building owners in the pandemic-hit city, Veritas defaulted on its loans last year and is selling part of its massive portfolio.

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Ron Heckmann, a spokesman for Veritas, said many of its buildings are more than a century old and the company has worked hard to address tenants’ concerns, spending millions of dollars to improve them. The elevators are so outdated that replacement parts have to be custom made, he said. Plumbing, wiring and heating systems are aging and complex.

Mr. Heckmann added that only a fraction of the tenants in the company’s thousands of units in the city joined the strike. He called the strikes ideological demagoguery led by Brad Hirn, a tenant advocate with the San Francisco nonprofit Housing Rights Committee, who organized the tenant associations and led the fights.

Mr. Hirn, however, said the buildings had real problems, including cockroaches, vermin, mold and broken mailboxes and elevators. Mr Heckmann said whenever such issues are raised by tenants, the company works hard to resolve them quickly. Mr Hirn said tenants would call off strikes when the company provides rent reductions for code violations, improves health and safety protocols and translates documents into other languages. .

“With enough support, they can achieve things they never thought possible,” he said.