Evicted? San Francisco Says Not So Fast

(Photo: AP/Eric Risberg)

Protesters hang a banner inside the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall during a protest against evictions on May 8, 2015.

One of the pernicious byproducts of a San Francisco housing market that is too hot for many renters to handle is a relentless increase in evictions. Landlords have increasingly taken advantage of a loophole that allows them to evict tenants—not for tenant behavior or late rent payments, but because the property owner or a relative supposedly wants to move in.

But last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a new ordinance that prohibits landlords from instigating “no-fault” evictions during the school year if a child under 18 lives in the unit, or if the tenant is a schoolteacher.

San Franciscans are well-versed in the hardships fueled by the mismatch between income and housing affordability. San Francisco has the ninth-highest level of income inequality in the United States, according to a January study by the Brookings Institution.

The housing crunch dates to a dot-com-fueled real-estate boom that started in the 1990s and continues to sizzle, and that presents city officials with an extreme version of the problem facing many large urban centers: How best to help poor, low-, and middle-income residents who flounder in a local economy that caters to high-salaried professionals.

San Francisco’s eviction rate has been climbing for five years and is now higher than it’s been in more than a decade, according to a report published last year by the Center for Community Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.

The evictions hit schoolchildren especially hard. In passing the new law, supervisors noted that students’ academic performance, relationships, and mental health suffer with sudden forced relocations. Some students also experience problems if a teacher or a staff member who works closely with a student is evicted, and chooses to move out of the district during the school year.

Most media outlets have zeroed in on the teacher provision, but Miriam Zuk, the director of the UC Berkeley center, says that the measure will have a bigger impact on families. “To ban evictions during the school year on households with children is pretty radical—in a good way,” she says.

Teachers and any family with a member who is a teacher also may not be evicted during the school year, under the new ordinance. The measure is likely the first-ever eviction-related protection for professionals in the United States. Those protections, which cover both private and public school employees, also extend to administrators, classroom assistants, custodians, and others. Protecting support staff and administrators from eviction also helps teachers by not burdening them with duties outside the classroom.

The San Francisco Unified School District has been losing teachers who face eviction or can no longer afford to live in the city, or both, at a steady clip. San Francisco apartment hunters navigate the single most expensive rental market in the country, according to Zumper.com, a national housing rentals portal. In April, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was about $3,600 per month; a two-bedroom apartment was more than $4,800. Yet a first-year teacher minted with a bachelor’s degree only earns a starting salary of about $50,000.

The housing difficulties are hitting schools so hard that San Francisco plans to create housing developments specifically for teachers. Other cities, most notably Baltimore and Newark, have also set out to address teacher housing constraints with new affordable housing, an issue that The American Prospect explored last year.

Adding teachers to the mix of people whose lives have been upended by eviction helps broaden the lens on housing insecurities faced by low-wage workers and the very poor. Advocacy groups like Jobs with Justice San Francisco and other housing coalitions have “done a better job of illustrating” how other workers, from firefighters to nurses, are also losing their homes, Zuk says.

The challenge now is enforcement. One San Francisco Examiner commenter alleged that, though “well-intentioned,” the legislation was misguided. “Every time you create a protected class, you create a disincentive to do business with that class,” the commenter said. Or, as one KQED commenter opined, “It looks like I will never lease to a teacher.”

Yet the ordinance may turn out to be a stopgap measure on the way to additional regulations. In its memo on the ordinance, the San Francisco Youth Commission recommended that future proposals address delaying evictions until students graduate from high school. The group also wanted considerations for students with disabilities and at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24, who have aged out of foster care and are now in college. The two obvious solutions—building more workforce housing units and significantly increasing teachers’ salaries—are years away or unlikely to materialize.   

Tenant protections remain divisive elsewhere in the Bay Area, too. According to Zuk, elected officials in the region are “conflicted.” Some municipal leaders support such measures; others oppose them. A third group favors additional protections but does not see them gaining any traction. “I would like to see the [San Francisco] ordinance replicated,” Zuk says. “But I would be surprised if that happens anytime soon just because of the differences between cities.”

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