“So your Airbnb tenant now has Airbnb tenants?”
— Erlich Bachman to Jared Dunn upon learning an Airbnb tenant is squatting in Jared’s San Francisco condo on HBO’s Silicon Valley
It’s no secret that in San Francisco’s tight housing market some landlords are holding residential units empty to rent through Airbnb and other short-term rental companies, but it might come as a surprise that in one of the country’s hottest commercial markets there are landlords keeping entire buildings empty. It may come as an even bigger surprise that some owner-occupiers prefer to leave units in their multiunit homes vacant rather than rent them out. With all this in mind, Supervisor Aaron Peskin is asking the city attorney’s office to explore legislation to allow the imposition of a vacancy tax on owners who warehouse their properties.
While it may sound very San Francisco, we wouldn’t be the first city in the world to pass such a tax. As I wrote in Reynolds Rap several months ago (“It’s time to tax foreign homebuyers,” Marina Times, June 2017), the city of Vancouver, Canada, also struggling with a massive housing shortage, implemented an Empty Homes Tax equal to one percent of a property’s assessed value on residences that aren’t rented out or lived in by the owners, with net revenues reinvested in affordable housing initiatives. I’ve long been a proponent of making warehousing unattractive to landlords, and a fine would certainly be a deterrent. I agree with Peskin that keeping apartment units and commercial buildings purposefully off the market is contributing to San Francisco’s skyrocketing prices. However, I hope the new legislation doesn’t include small, owner-occupier landlords without first addressing the gaping issue that makes some of them unwilling to rent their units in the first place.
There’s a reason the 1990 film Pacific Heights, about a homeowner’s inability to remove a nightmare tenant, was set in San Francisco. Though I never saw the movie in theaters, one night I stumbled upon it on cable while, as it happened, I was in the midst of dealing with a squatter who made Michael Keaton’s character look like a model citizen. I first met “Alicia” (not her real name) at a local dog park, where she approached to tell me how beautiful my pit bull Jazzy was. Over the course of several months, it became apparent she knew her way around dogs, so I hired her to walk Jazzy a couple times per week. One morning Alicia came to me crying — her sublet in Oakland had ended suddenly and, while she had another lined up, it wouldn’t be ready for three weeks. She had four dogs, and she had no choice but to live in her truck in the dead of winter. I told her that she was welcome to stay in my basement until her sublet was ready. In exchange, she agreed to walk Jazzy for free. Just one week into the arrangement, Alicia slipped on another client’s stairs and injured her knee. She stopped walking Jazzy and started getting comfortable.
My father had been diagnosed with dementia and I needed to take care of him, which entailed moving to his home near Buena Vista Park. I planned to renovate the house in the Haight and rent it out to cover my mortgage, which Alicia had been aware of from the start. When three weeks turned into four, I asked her when she would be moving out. “The sublet fell through,” she said casually. Weeks turned into months as Alicia used San Francisco’s notoriously pro-tenant system to her advantage. She filed two bogus restraining orders to keep me off my property, where she perjured herself repeatedly in front of her multiple free attorneys. The judges dismissed them. Meanwhile, I had to hire a $500-an-hour attorney, who informed me it wasn’t going to be easy to remove Alicia from my home. “She’s not a tenant — she doesn’t have a lease,” I said incredulously. “She doesn’t even pay rent!” He shrugged his shoulders. “Welcome to being a landlord in San Francisco.”
Over the next six months, Alicia and her attorneys did everything in their considerable power to keep her in my basement as she continued to harass me. Eventually, her behavior escalated. She had a petty criminal come to my father’s house with the intention of vandalizing my car — I heard him talking to Alicia on his cell phone through the garage door and called the police (they told him to stay away from my neighborhood and let him go). She followed me to the grocery store and to the office; she sat in front of my house all hours of the day and night; she had her minions ring my doorbell incessantly, keeping my father awake; she even filed a complaint with Animal Care and Control stating that Jazzy had attacked her and should be put down. The officer who called not only knew Jazzy from my column, she also knew my nemesis from similar incidents, whispering “off the record” that Alicia was “crazy.”
A gesture of kindness on my part had spiraled into an expensive, time-consuming and dangerous situation. Even after my attorney filed eviction papers, it dragged on. A year-and-a-half later, we were preparing to go to court when Alicia did herself in. She called the city to complain about “dangerous chemicals” in the basement for which she wanted me cited. When the inspector investigated, he found no dangerous chemicals, but he did see that she was over the legal limit of animals and filed notice with the city. Turns out she now had six dogs and four cats. I used that to my advantage and, as much as I hated doing it, threatened to have her animals removed. Just moments before we walked into court, she settled for $500. Three weeks later, she moved out.
While I had been planning to renovate the basement and rent out the entire three-bedroom, two-bathroom flat, the experience with Alicia left me anxiety ridden and fearful. I felt bad taking valuable rental stock off the market, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of another Pacific Heights scenario. I converted the infamous basement into a master suite and put the flat on the market. We quickly had a buyer — a young, single investment banker who rose at 3 a.m. for work and loved his new subterranean sanctuary.
Most tenants are good people, as are most landlords. I was a tenant at one point, and I had an amicable relationship with my landlord — in fact, I eventually bought that Haight-Ashbury flat from him. Rent control has many positive attributes, too, and I have friends who wouldn’t be able to stay in San Francisco without it.
But if the Board of Supervisors wants skittish owner-occupiers to rent out their vacant units, they need to level the playing field when it comes to bad actors like Alicia. In my situation, I felt completely helpless. I had no recourse and got zero help from the city or its agencies. Alicia, on the other hand, had access to multiple free attorneys who smugly manipulated the system, helping her to stay in my building illegally. They had no conscience and never considered the moral, financial, or emotional cost to my family and me.
Until lawmakers wake up and smell the injustice, I doubt even fines will convince small landlords like me to dive back into a lopsided system that offers us no protections, even in the most egregious cases.