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Decade-Old Law Could Protect San Diego Tenants — Or Not

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Buildings at 26th Street and Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan are pictured, Aug. 16, 2016.

Fixing bad housing often means displacing tenants. There's an ordinance on the books that could protect such renters — if the legal community can decide what it means.

Decade-Old Law Could Protect San Diego Tenants — Or Not

GUEST:

Megan Burks, reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

The apartments at 2605 Logan Ave. used to be home to low-income families, disabled individuals and people trying to kick drug and alcohol addictions. The place had mold and cockroaches, but it was affordable.

Today, young tenants lock their skateboards to specially designed racks on the front stoop. They check their mail beneath neon murals and flyers for art shows.

The property was purchased and remodeled last year. The new owners, LWP Group, gave nearly all of the previous tenants notice to vacate so they could overhaul the building. Rent has gone from as little as $650 a month to about $950.

RELATED: Former Tenants Of Derelict Landlord Tossed Into Punishing Rental Market

It's a common tale across San Diego's low-income communities as demand for housing increases. But there's a city ordinance that could disrupt that tale.

"In my opinion, a landlord cannot come in and throw out long-term tenants after buying a property just to renovate it and increase the rent," said Dan Lickel, a tenants' rights attorney. "I don't think they have the right to do that under the San Diego Tenants Right to Know Ordinance."

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Dan Lickel is pictured in his Barrio Logan office, Aug. 19, 2016.

The ordinance is an eviction control measure the city of San Diego adopted in 2004. It says landlords have to tell tenants of two years or more why they're being evicted. And it says only specific scenarios are cause for an eviction — things like nonpayment of rent or illegal activity on the premises.

One such scenario is the need to go in and make repairs.

"The ordinance refers to necessary modifications, necessary repairs and construction. The question is, 'What is necessary?'" Lickel said. "If the apartment is suited with 1980s vintage cabinets and counters and appliances but it works, why is it necessary for the landlord to come in and say, 'Well we want to update it to the 2010s and in order to do that, we need you to leave?'"

To be clear, the repairs made at 2605 Logan were not only cosmetic. The new owners said the conditions were so bad it would have been irresponsible to keep tenants in place during the renovations.

Indeed, a former tenant said in a KPBS and Voice of San Diego investigation into the building's previous owner that her son developed severe asthma after crews tried to remove mold in her apartment. The investigation also found evidence of plumbing leaks and cockroach infestations.

But Lickel argues that, in general, landlords have a legal obligation to keep tenants in place whenever possible.

Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye drafted the ordinance and disagrees.

"If you own a property and you want to make major repairs to it, of course you can tell people that you're going to make repairs and they have to move out," Frye said. "Now, the good landlords and the people that want to keep their tenants who have been there and have been good tenants will say you can move out for a month or two and they'll help with accommodations."

The ordinance was part of a package of reforms meant to help tenants struggling in San Diego's tight housing market. But Frye says it was never meant to prevent property owners from updating their units and making money. The first draft reflects that.

A tenant who has resided in the same dwelling unit for at least two years may only be evicted for good cause, including … a business or economic reason for termination of the tenancy such as sale of the property or renovation of the unit.

But the final version refers only to necessary repairs that fix code violations.

A residential tenancy of more than two years duration shall not be terminated, nor shall its renewal be refused, except for one or more of the following reasons …


Correction of Violations. The landlord, after having obtained all necessary permits from the City of San Diego, seeks to recover possession of the rental unit for necessary repair or construction when removal of the tenant is reasonably necessary to accomplish the repair or construction work.

The differences between the drafts are curious, so we asked the City Attorney's Office for an interpretation.

"It is in the hands of judges," spokesman Gerry Braun said in an email, meaning it’s the court's job to interpret the law.

"I'm not aware of any judge ruling on the Right to Know Ordinance, and I know there's no published appellate decisions on the subject," said Lickel, the tenants' rights attorney.

And there probably won't be one anytime soon. Such cases rarely make it to court. Data from the San Diego Superior Court show more than 98 percent of tenants in eviction court settle before they go to trial.

"It's a pretty big risk for tenants if they end up losing an unlawful detainer in court," Lickel said.

Tenants often settle because having an eviction judgment on their record would likely keep them from finding housing elsewhere.

Lickel said that until the legal community makes meaning of the ordinance, there’s another solution: effective code enforcement.

"If a landlord can allow a property to get to a point where it's fallen into a state of disrepair and turn around sell it to somebody else who can come in and renovate and kick everybody out while they're doing it, that doesn't seem fair to tenants," Lickel said. "The Right to Know Ordinance was intended to protect tenants, especially when there was a shortage of low-income housing, and that's not happening when the properties that are available to low-income people are the least kept up."

Photo by Guillermo Sevilla

Greg Strangman, founder and lead principal for LWP Group, is pictured in his Barrio Logan office, Sept. 19, 2016.

Since the 2015 investigation by KPBS and Voice of San Diego, the city has added code enforcement officers and worked to be more proactive in combating unsafe housing. But there’s still work to be done.

The new owner at 2605 Logan Ave. said he recently looked at another building for sale in Barrio Logan but passed.

"Guess what? There was like a telephone book full of code compliance issues. It was thick," said Greg Strangman, founder and lead principal for LWP Group. "I just looked at my partner and said, 'I'm not going to fight this fight.'"

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