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Tenants Say Renovations Are Pushing Them Out Of Rent-Controlled Housing

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- As San Francisco cracks down on owner move-in and Ellis Act evictions, tenants' rights groups are worried about a new loophole: It's being called "renoviction." KPIX 5's Susie Steimle caught up with a landlord whose tenant says he's trying to push her out.

There are a few reasons why Bay Area landlord Jeff Crear was not happy to see us. Topping the list: Janice Sukaitis. "It was a slum, I moved into a slum," she said.

Ever since she moved in to a victorian in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in 1989, she's kept detailed records of unsafe conditions: Leaks in the roof, wood rot, broken stairs, no heat. She says Crear refused to fix anything.

"I would say there is wood rot in the house and he would say, 'I don't see it, where?' He put his hand on the window sill and the window sill fell off right in his hand."

Building code violations piled up but went unpaid and never fixed, for years. Finally, San Francisco's city attorney took action. Jeff Crear and his wife were ordered to pay $450,000 in civil penalties.
But Janice's troubles were far from over. "Two months later, I was evicted," she said.

A notice to vacate, for capital improvements. It was supposed to be for 90 days. But Janice was suspicious.

"I thought, they say this is temporary, but once they get me out, I might find it real hard to get back in."

Sure enough, Janice's 90-day eviction stretched into a year and a half. She's not alone. Tenants' rights advocates here in the city say lengthy renovations that go on and on for months have become a popular way for landlords to get rid of tenants on rent control. There's even a word for it: Renoviction.

"Why this term renoviction is important is because tenants are displaced for extraordinarily long periods of time, and it becomes a form of harassment to get the tenant to basically give up," said Brad Hirn with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

Evictions for capital improvement are legal and more than doubled last year, according to rent board data. But they can't be extended without city approval, which did not happen in Janice's case.

"Many times, I have seen landlords just simply not follow that step of requesting the extension," said Hirn.

Janice refused to give up. She sued the Crears, and eventually managed to get back into her apartment. But it's still a construction site. Rickety scaffolding surrounds the back of the building.

Renoviction (CBS)
The exterior of Janice's run-down apartment. (CBS)

Janice says it makes any trip out the back to empty the garbage a hazardous obstacle course. And blue tarp still covers up her back windows. Janice says it has been blocking light for months.

"I think it's totally deliberate," she said.

We wanted to ask Jeff Crear about that.

"There are tenants' rights groups that are really worried that this is a new kind of eviction that is going on in San Francisco, can you speak to that?" we asked him.

His response: "I am not telling you a **** thing at all."

"You don't want to set the record straight?" we asked him.

His response: "I don't give a **** about the record that you have, ok?"

Two other lawsuits like Janice's have already been filed in San Francisco. They involve 150 other tenants that claim they're being pushed out the same way, with lengthy renovations.

Janice is represented by Joseph Tobener, a tenants' rights attorney at Tobener Ravenscroft, LLP in San Francisco. Her case goes to trial this spring.

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