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Housing Policy • April 4, 2006

Pieri v. City and County of San Francisco: Round Two for the SF Tenants’ Union

 Pieri v. City and County of San Francisco:  Round Two for the SF Tenants’ Union

 

At various times in these pages we have speculated whether Berkeley’s laws regarding owner move-ins and Ellis Act evictions would be upheld by the courts. 

 

The issue, you may remember, is that state law guarantees an owner’s right to live in his own property and/or to withdraw that property from the rental market.

 

Berkeley and a few other jurisdictions were afraid that these state laws would result in an “epidemic” of tenant evictions by landlords who are unhappy with local rent control rules.  Berkeley for example requires that tenants who are evicted under the state’s Ellis Act must be paid $7000 in relocation assistance regardless of whether they are low income, or of whether they are able to find alternate living space at comparable rents.

 

San Francisco has a similar rule, which has been challenged in court by an individual property owner and the Small Property Owners of San Francisco. They alleged, based on an earlier case called Channing Properties v. City of Berkeley, which held that it was an unlawful burden on their state law rights for the City to require substantial payments to departing tenants who could show no actual damages from being evicted under the Ellis Act.   The trial court (by Judge James Warren, a respected jurist) agreed with the plaintiffs, citing Channing Properties.  The case went to the Court of Appeals.

 

On February 21, the appeals court reversed Judge Warren, and found that changes in the Ellis Act since Channing Properties show that the legislature did not mean to limit a city’s right to impose mitigation measures for all tenants, irrespective of their income, and irrespective of actual damages.

 

 This victory for the San Francisco Tenants’ Union is not as significant as some have claimed:  the court was careful to limit its findings to the particular case before it, and also ordered that its opinion not be published.  Non-publication in the legal world means that the case may not be cited as applying to any other cases before the courts on the same subject matter.

 

The Small Property Owners say they will take this to the California Supreme Court.  The Tenants’ Union will fight them.  

 

Round 3 may be decisive.

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