San Francisco aiming to ease rent-hike jolts from seismic upgrades 

click to enlarge Building owners are allowed to pass the cost of required seismic upgrades on to renters, but city officials are working to make it easier to apply for hardship assistance. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Building owners are allowed to pass the cost of required seismic upgrades on to renters, but city officials are working to make it easier to apply for hardship assistance.

Owners of San Francisco buildings most likely to collapse during a major earthquake are now required to make seismic upgrades in coming years, but can pass all costs to tenants.

While tenant advocates had initially fought for a cost reduction for renters, they supported the proposal after city officials agreed to reform a tenant financial hardship program overseen by the Rent Board.

Under the legislation approved unanimously Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, such buildings must undergo seismic upgrades by 2020. The work takes up to 90 days and costs up to $130,000. Under existing law, property owners can pass through 100 percent of the cost; that means renters will pay an extra $38 to $83 a month.

Supervisor Jane Kim, who said she would have preferred that only 50 percent of the costs go to tenants, said it was important to fix the financial hardship program to ensure “our most vulnerable tenants won’t be priced out of our rental market and priced out of San Francisco because of the work that we are doing to save affordable rental stock.”

Currently, tenants can apply for financial hardship assistance to avoid paying some or all of various allowable pass-through costs.

Tenant advocates said this process is flawed in that it is cumbersome and intrusive, and decisions are rendered somewhat arbitrarily.

The new law approved Tuesday requires that a hardship proposal be made within 12 months.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu is working on the changes with Mayor Ed Lee and promised to introduce legislation sooner than that time frame.  

While the details are unknown, Chiu said the changes will simplify the documentation needed for tenants to demonstrate a hardship, specify the income levels under which applications would be approved, and make clear on what grounds a property owner can appeal a granted hardship.

Chiu noted that the law that allows the pass-through of all the costs was the result of legislation introduced by Tom Ammiano when he was a supervisor.

“The reason he agreed to it, it was in the context of a very intense lawsuit over these requirements,” Chiu said, adding that it was ill-advised to start “tinkering” with those requirements now.

Some 58,000 residents and 7,000 workers occupy the 3,000 buildings that will be retrofitted under the mandate, Chiu said.

The buildings are largely rent-controlled units. Were they to collapse in an earthquake, those rebuilt would not be held to rent-control laws.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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