San Francisco eyes changes to new law to help low-income renters handle seismic upgrade costs 

click to enlarge Blake Waring, left, and Jim Gibson prepare a Marina apartment building for seismic upgrades. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Blake Waring, left, and Jim Gibson prepare a Marina apartment building for seismic upgrades.

Residents who would see their rent increase in order to pay for seismic upgrades could have an easier time applying for a financial hardship exemption.

Worried about the displacement of low-income renters, city officials plan to improve the process by which financial hardships can be claimed from the Rent Board. This follows a decision earlier this year to require seismic upgrades within seven years for San Francisco's most earthquake-vulnerable properties. The costs for those upgrades can be passed on to tenants.

Currently, tenants facing rent hikes for capital projects such as renewable energy improvements or roof repairs can avoid rent increases if they prove financial hardship to the Rent Board. The board decides during a public hearing if the application should be accepted.

Tenant advocates have criticized the existing process as being labor intensive and time consuming with somewhat subjective decisions.

Today, the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee is expected to vote on legislation that changes the Rent Board process to help tenants more easily obtain a financial hardship exemption.

The legislation, which is expected to be approved, makes good on a promise to tenant advocates who raised concerns over how the soft-story seismic safety legislation permitted landlords to pass on to tenants 100 percent of the upgrade costs -- which is the same scenario as other capital improvement projects.

The proposal establishes clear criteria for granting financial hardship exemptions. And instead of requiring a public hearing before the Rent Board, hardships would be granted at an administrative level, affording more privacy and speeding up the process.

It's estimated that the current hardship process can take up to five months.

Hardships would be automatically granted if tenants can demonstrate that they receive means-tested public assistance such as a Supplemental Security Income, their household earns less than 80 percent of the area median income and pays more than one-third of their income to rent, or they face exceptional financial circumstances like significant medical bills. A landlord would be able to appeal the administrative decision to the Rent Board.

Also, the legislation requires the Rent Board to notify all tenants of the rent increase and their right to apply for a hardship exemption, and provides hard copies of hardship applications.

The legislation mandating the seismic upgrades, which was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors last April, requires the work to be completed by 2020. The projects take up to 90 days and cost up to $130,000.

Tenants in the affected units are facing monthly rent hikes of between $38 and $83.

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