Here’s an awful thing that’s happening to low-income people in this city right now: A group of tenants lives in an older, affordable apartment building somewhere. Suddenly, their rents skyrocket. With no way to pay double or triple the rent for the same apartment, they all leave. Finding a new place is hard and expensive, so some of them have to move out of the city altogether just to find a place they can afford. Not only are they now probably stuck with a long drive or bus ride to get to work—because our mass transit system sucks—but they’ve also been displaced from a neighborhood they knew, maybe one they lived in for a long, long time. A few months later, the same building where those tenants lived looks completely different. The landlord or developer who owns the building has renovated it and found people with more money to pay higher rents for the same apartments that were once affordable.
Some people call these “economic evictions” and, according to city planning and development staff, they’re becoming more common.
The basic factor driving this is the increasing income and demand for housing in this city. But here’s why developers can actually get away with it: Since the 1990s, the city has had a law on the books that gives financial assistance to low-income tenants who are evicted because their landlord is tearing down or rehabbing their building. It's meant to help the displaced tenants move. In theory, any developer who wants to rennovate a building and has to displace people to do so should have to pay $3,225 each to any tenant who makes less than half the area's median income. (The landlord actually pays half of the $3,225; the city pays the other half.)
But if the landlord doesn’t actually say they want everyone out so they can fix up the building—and instead just runs them off with rent increases—they don’t have to pay this assistance. Sneaky bastards.
At a recent city council committee meeting, Council Member Kshama Sawant called the situation “completely ludicrous.”
The most direct fix would be to require landlords to pay relocation assistance when they jack up rents like this, but the city can’t do that because of state laws limiting rent control.
So here’s the workaround Council Member Nick Licata is planning to propose in April (drafted with help from his aide Lisa Herbold and Tenants Union director Jon Grant, both of whom are running for city council this year):
If a tenant receives a huge rent increase and suspects this is what's going on, they can contact the city’s Department of Planning and Development. DPD can then ask the landlord to sign a certification promising they’re not raising rents in order to get tenants to move out. If they sign it and then apply for permits to tear down or rehab the building within the next three months, DPD could fine them $1,000 a day until they’re no longer violating the agreement they signed. In this situation, the tenant wouldn't actually get relocation assistance. (Presumably, they've already moved out because of the rent increase and state law prevents tenants from getting assistance once they've moved.) But the threat of the steep fine is meant to discourage developers from doing this in the first place.
On the other hand, if a landlord refuses to sign a certification, DPD could impose the same $1,000 a day fine and tenants could use the landlord's refusal to sign as an argument in court that the landlord is actually trying to evict them. If the landlord lost in court and had to admit they really were evicting tenants in order to remodel, they'd have to pay relocation assistance.
“The bottom line is we just want property owners to follow the law that’s on the books,” Licata said when he presented the idea to his fellow council members.
Grant, from the Tenants Union, said in an interview that the change is "the least we can do. It’s unconscionable that developers are making money hand over fist and are skirting this basic law.”