Real Estate Today

Mahjong, little old ladies, and rent control

photo: calford91 / flickr

My regular Mahjong group with a dozen white-haired ladies often has unexpected events. A recent afternoon began with someone calling my name as I entered the room. My friend Jane (not her real name) called me over to ask a question. She sounded urgent.

Did she want to sell her house? Would I be the lucky Realtor she chose for the job? The other three players said: “You have to wait until we are done with this game.”

The game finished and I slipped into the chair next to my friend, all ears and ready to hear what she had to say. Jane immediately began her story by telling me she was a renter. I admit I felt a moment of disappointment, but she was clearly upset and I wanted to know why.

Jane told me she had lived in her building since it had been built, close to 40 years, and her landlord had decided to sell. It was no surprise to hear that she had the best apartment in the 17-unit building and had lived there all these years with no lease. No one cared about having tenants sign a lease 40 years ago, but she had regularly paid her rent and was a perfect tenant. Now that the landlord had decided to sell his building, his lawyer and real estate agent were both concerned that Jane had never signed a lease.

The landlord had stopped in to Jane’s apartment and handed her what she said was a blank sheet of paper and asked her to write down the terms of her rental agreement. He told her it was “for her own good.” A good rule of thumb is to beware of people who tell you to do something “for you own good.” Jane is an educated woman, but older now, and she was unsure of what to do. She asked her brother, who advised her to do as the landlord asked. She still was not sure and asked for her friends’ advice. Eventually someone told her to call the San Francisco Rent Board. The advice the Rent Board gave her was to do nothing and to check back if she had further questions.

A week later, she was at Mahjong and immediately grabbed me to continue her story. Jane asked if the San Francisco Rent Board could be trusted. Since we had played Mahjong together for some time, I knew she was not as sharp as she once was, and I felt angry that her landlord clearly welcomed the opportunity to take advantage of an elderly tenant. I advised my friend that the Rent Board could be trusted and the next time she was contacted by her landlord about anything to go straight to the Rent Board before doing anything else. Jane agreed she would call the Rent Board if she had a question. I told her she could certainly make a trip in person, as their office is located near Davies Symphony Hall at 25 Van Ness Avenue #320, half a block from Market Street. Tenant-landlord issues can be life changing and I believe it makes sense to speak in person to advisors if possible, whether they are working the advice desk at the Rent Board or are private attorneys.

Our conversation end-ed with Jane telling me that she was surprised that as a Realtor I was so pro-renter. I told her that San Francisco has many laws that protect both renters and landlords, and I felt that it is important that all concerned played by the rules. Her landlord sounded like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and preying on the elderly is the most despicable of crimes.

Maybe Jane is more on the ball than I thought and what she was really doing was some detective work to find out what Realtors think about getting renters to move from rent-controlled buildings. At the time, I didn’t think to ask. In any case, what she heard from me was not what she expected.

The moral to this story is simple: Both tenants and landlords are welcome at the San Francisco Rent Board. If you have questions, they have trained staff and the help is free. You may also want to consult an attorney specializing in San Francisco real estate and tenant or landlord rights. The San Francisco Rent Board website is

Carole Isaacs is a Realtor with McGuire Real Estate (Lombard, Bluxome and Noe Valley offices), photographer and lover of all things San Francisco. Visit her online at or call 415-608-1267.
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