So you’re a tenant in San Francisco and have a question about your renters’ rights? Take a look at the answers to SF Tenants’ Frequently Asked Questions below – you’re probably not alone!

If you don’t see an answer to your question, feel free to contact us directly using our contact form.

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San Francisco Tenants – Frequently Asked Questions

My landlord said he’s selling the property and served me with a (30/60/90) day notice to vacate. Can he do this?

That depends. Is your home covered by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance? If you don’t know, the first thing you need to do is contact the San Francisco Rent Board (http://sfrb.org/) and find out. If your unit IS covered by the SFRO, your landlord cannot demand that you leave simply because he’s selling the property. If you live in a unit covered by the SFRO, your landlord can only evict you for one of 16 “just causes” permitted under the ordinance. Selling the property is not one of those just causes.

My landlord sent me a notice with a giant rent increase. Can she do that?

Again, that depends on whether your unit is covered by the SFRO. If you live in a property that was built before 1979 and contains at least two residential units (an illegal in-law counts), then chances are good that a huge rent increase is not legal. In properties covered by the rent control portion of the SFRO, a landlord may only increase the rent once per year by the allowable annual percentage which is posted on the Rent Board’s website. Note that a landlord can impose “banked” increases, which means if they haven’t given you a rent increase for, say, 10 years, they can impose 10 years of increases at one time. Your landlord must provide you with a written notice at least 30 days prior to any rent increase totaling less than 10% of your total rent and at least 60 days prior to any rent increase of 10% or greater.

If you live in a single family residence built before 1979 that has no other units on the property (again, an illegal in-law unit DOES count!) then your home may be covered by the Just Cause for eviction provisions of the SFRO, but not the rent control portion of the rent ordinance. Which means that the rent increase may technically be legal (read on for why you may still have some hope). Why would your home be covered by only part of the rent ordinance? Because a state law commonly referred to as the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act exempts single family residences from the rent control portion of the SFRO (lobby your legislators to change that!). Unfortunately, this also means that condos, which are legally considered a single family residence, are also usually exempt from rent control. If you’re not sure about the property you live in, contact the San Francisco Rent Board (see above or resources page for their contact info).

If you do live in a single family residence and you suspect your landlord is imposing a giant increase just so you’ll move out (thereby allowing them to avoid the just cause for eviction provisions of the SFRO), and you have evidence of their ulterior motive, then you may want to consider seeking legal help to fight the rent increase or, if you move out as a result of the increase, to bring a wrongful eviction action against the landlord.

My landlord comes over without notice all the time and says he needs to do some repair in my apartment. Can he do this?

Probably not. A landlord generally has to give you 24 hours written notice prior to entering your unit for repairs. However, if an emergency repair is necessary (flooding from a broken pipe, for example), or if the landlord gave you oral notice that he was coming over to make the repair and you agreed to it, then they are probably not in violation of the law.

I told my landlord about a needed repair and she has not fixed it. How long do I have to wait?

You have to allow her a “reasonable” amount of time to make the repair. “Reasonable” depends on the particular situation. If your apartment is being flooded by that broken pipe, then reasonable is probably less than 24 hours. If there’s a minor leak in your faucet that’s not causing any significant damage, then reasonable could be 30 days. If you’ve made repeated requests for a necessary repair and she has repeatedly ignored you, then it might be time to contact the San Francisco Department of Housing Inspection to schedule an inspection. If housing inspection finds a problem, then they will contact your landlord and demand repairs. Note that taking this course of action will likely not go over well with your landlord and could result in a less than pleasant relationship.

My landlord won’t fix anything and I read that I don’t have to pay rent if repairs are not made. Is this a bad idea?

It sure is a bad idea! One of the most common and frustrating calls I get is from a tenant who is being evicted because someone told them they have a right to stop paying rent because the landlord wasn’t making repairs. And sometimes it was an attorney who told them that. If an attorney tells you to stop paying rent on that basis, I would suggest that you stop the conversation immediately and run the other way.

Here’s the deal: It is true that state law says that a landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs and maintain the premises in habitable condition gives a tenant the right to “withhold” rent until repairs are made. However, state law also allows a landlord to serve a notice demanding that a tenant pay rent or vacate if the tenant fails to pay rent, regardless of the reason that tenant has not paid.  What this means is that even if you have a legitimate legal basis for withholding rent, it doesn’t matter when it comes to the landlord serving you a notice. And if you fail to pay the rent in the time period stated on the notice, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit (i.e. an eviction) to get you out of the property. Crazy, right? Keep in mind that our legal system is geared towards property owners. Renters don’t count. (Just check your tax return – see any deductions for your residential rental?)

So even though you could use the landlord’s failure to make repairs as a defense to an eviction  that is based on non-payment of rent, you’d still have to pay court costs and probably attorney’s fees to help you fight the UD lawsuit. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll win.  So doesn’t it make more sense to continue to pay your rent and, if your landlord continues to ignore necessary repairs, sue your landlord? You bet it does!

My landlord has never fixed my (heater/sink/your problem here) so I stopped paying rent. Now she’s served me with a notice to pay rent or quit. Is that legal?

Sadly, yes it is. See the answer above for further explanation.

My landlord told me I have to move because she/her family member is going to move in. Can she do that?

Did they tell you, or did they actually give you a written notice? If they just told you and nothing more, then take it as a harbinger of things to come, but sit tight until then. A landlord must provide notice of an owner or relative move-in (OMI or RMI, respectively) in writing. And the notice must include a bunch of very specific information to be valid. If they haven’t served such a notice, chances are good they told you about their alleged plans to move in with the hope that you’ll just pack up and leave. But you’re not going to do that, right? Of course not. Read the next question for more info on OMI relocation benefits.

I received a notice of an owner move in eviction. Am I entitled to relocation payments?

Probably…If your unit is covered by the SFRO, then you may be entitled to relocation payments provided you have lived in the unit for at least 12 months. However, don’t assume that you have to leave or accept the minimal amount of relocation money (which will not be anything close to what you’d need to find a comparable rental in the city!) just because you got an OMI or RMI notice.

If you get an OMI or and RMI notice, you should contact the Rent Board, visit the San Francisco Tenants’ Union (https://www.sftu.org), or visit the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee (http://www.hrcsf.org/) for help. You may also want to consult with a tenants’ rights attorney who can help determine whether the notice is valid and whether you should try and fight it.

My landlord harasses me. Can I sue him?

Well, you could. But it will depend greatly on the situation and the evidence you have.

Keep in mind, harassment is somewhat  subjective. What some consider a  minor annoyance, others consider harassment. And harassment can be difficult to prove. Suing your landlord solely for harassment is probably not going to be easy.  You will want to document the harassing behavior as much as possible, including taking notes of incidents with the dates, times and any witnesses to the event, and photographs or video when possible (however, do not record audio, or take any video that includes audio, of any private conversations with the landlord without their consent. In California it is a crime to record any conversation without the consent of the other party/parties in any situation where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Such “evidence” would not only be impermissible, it could also get you into trouble).

If the harassment was so bad it forced you to move out, or substantially interferes with your ability to live in your home, and you have good evidence (witnesses would really help) of the harassment, then you may have the basis for a harassment lawsuit.

I moved out after receiving an owner move-in notice, but now the place has been rented to a new tenant. What can I do?

Call an attorney.

Hopefully you did not sign any legal documents waiving your rights regarding your tenancy prior to moving out. If you did, but received nothing in return, or you received only the relocation payments mandated by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, then contact an attorney and discuss your legal options.

If you agreed to accept money in excess of the mandatory relocation payments, and signed an agreement stating that you were accepting the money in exchange for giving up your tenancy, then that was probably a “buy out” agreement. In that case, you may have lost the right to legal action against the landlord. But don’t despair! You may still have options. Talk with a tenants’ rights attorney. That’s what were here for.

I have an emotional support animal (ESA) but the apartment I applied for has a no pets policy. Should I mention my ESA prior to being approved?

This is a touchy subject. Here’s the reality of the situation: If you have a legitimate need for an ESA and the documentation to prove it, then your animal is not a pet. However, some (many) landlords don’t see it that way.  And unfortunately, with those landlords, if you disclose that you have an ESA before you are approved to move in, many landlords will reject your application without explanation, making it hard to prove that you did not get the housing due to your ESA. If you wait until AFTER you have been approved and have already signed the lease before you request a reasonable accommodation (if you have a legitimate emotional support animal, then you likely know what this means), and the landlord refuses the request, then you have proof of discrimination (and a potential lawsuit).

It’s not ideal, and some people feel this is dishonest. However, in a rental market that is already nearly impossible for tenants, it is way too easy for a landlord to discriminate and claim that they’ve rejected someone with an emotional support animal simply because there was a more suitable candidate. That’s not right and it’s against the law. A tenant, or prospective tenant, is under no obligation to disclose a mental condition that requires treatment to a prospective landlord. To the contrary, such information is generally protected by law and cannot be requested or demanded by a landlord. Ultimately it’s up to you, but if you need a place to live and you have a legitimate need for an ESA, then waiting until after you’ve signed a lease to make the request for your ESA may be your best bet for finding housing, and that’s not something you should feel bad about.

I live in a building with a no pets policy but my health provider has given me a letter stating that I should have an emotional support animal (ESA) to help with my condition. Can my landlord deny me the right to have an ESA?

Can they? Sure. Is it legal to do so? No. If your health provider has “prescribed” (for lack of a better term) an ESA to help you with a mental health condition, then what you’re asking your landlord for is a reasonable accommodation for your condition, not an exception to the no pets policy. An ESA is not a pet under the law, and if your landlord denies your request, they could be liable for discrimination. Please note that the request has to be “reasonable.” If you have an ESA that poses a serious risk of harm to others, or is excessively noisy or otherwise causes a serious nuisance, the landlord may have grounds for refusing the animal. Try convincing a judge that you need that Presa Canario dog because you suffer from anxiety and need a vicious dog to feel safe – that’s an argument you’re probably going to lose.

And please keep in mind that ESAs provide a legitimate aid for people with otherwise disabling mental conditions- the abuse of the ESA title by using questionable sources for “documentation” so people can have pets is causing problems for those with a legitimate need for ESAs. Please don’t mess it up for those who truly need them!

I have moved out but the landlord is withholding my security deposit for conditions that were there when I moved in. What can I do?

I hope you did a pre move-in walk through check list. Maybe even took pictures of the place before you moved in and right before you moved out. No? Then unless you can find evidence that the damage existed before you moved in, it’s going to be your word against your landlord’s. Not ideal. But regardless of your evidence, if the deposit is under $10k and the landlord won’t budge, you can file in small claims court and do your best to prove your side.

The carpet or paint in my place is old/I don’t like it. Doesn’t the landlord have to replace it?

Unless the carpet poses a safety hazard and/or has been cited by San Francisco Housing Inspection/code enforcement, then probably not. Same with paint. If the paint is peeling or cracking, then the landlord has a duty to repair it, but that does not necessarily mean they have to repaint the whole place.

The general rule is landlords do not have a duty to fix cosmetic issues unless they pose a health or safety hazard.

I need to move out before my lease is up. Do I have to pay rent for the months remaining on my lease?

Legally you are liable for the remaining months. However, your landlord also has a duty to mitigate her damages. That means that she cannot do nothing to re-rent the place and still demand you pay for the remaining months. She also cannot re-rent the place and demand you pay the remaining months (i.e. “double dip”).

If you have to break your lease, offer to advertise the place and help find new occupants. If your landlord makes it difficult by rejecting every applicant that comes along, it’ll ultimately be on her to convince a judge that in this rental market she somehow couldn’t find an acceptable replacement.

There are rats, roaches, mice, bedbugs or other pests in my building. Who is responsible for pest control?

Generally speaking, your landlord is responsible for maintaining the premises in habitable condition, including ensuring the property is free of pests that pose a health risk. That includes bedbugs (despite what your landlord tries to tell you).

That said, if a tenant is creating a situation that promotes a pest problem (i.e. hoarding situation or has such lack of housekeeping as to create a health hazard), then the landlord can require the tenant do their part to keep pests at bay. So if you have a two-year-old pile of decaying food sitting in your kitchen and notice a rat’s nest or roach colony living in it, you may want to consider cleaning that up before contacting the landlord about pest control.

My smoke alarm is beeping, doesn’t the landlord have to replace the batteries?

No, you are responsible for replacing the batteries in your smoke alarm and changing the light bulbs in your unit unless your rental agreement states otherwise. Besides, do you really want your landlord coming over for that?

Can I change the locks on my doors without telling the landlord?

It depends on your lease. If your lease specifies that you must get the landlord’s consent to make alterations to your rental unit, then changing your locks without telling the landlord would likely constitute a breach of the lease. If your lease does not specify, then technically you can probably change the locks without penalty. If you have some safety concern for which you want to change the locks, and they refuse to allow you to do so, then you may want to consult a tenants’ rights attorney or one of the places listed on the resources page.

I received a three-day notice to pay rent. I tried to pay the money after the three days were up but my landlord refused to accept it and served me with an unlawful detainer. Is that legal?

I’m sorry to say that it is. If you do not pay the full amount demanded prior to the expiration of that notice, your landlord has the legal right to file an unlawful detainer the day after the notice expires. Note, too, that your landlord is not required to accept partial payment during the three-day period. They can demand the full amount they claim is owed, and if not paid, they can file the UD.

My lease only includes me but I’m getting married. Can my landlord refuse to let my spouse move in?

Assuming you live in something larger than a closet, no. A domestic partner or a spouse may not be barred from moving in. However, that does not mean that the new occupant has the same legal rights as you, the original tenant. If you move out and they stay, they will likely not be covered by rent control and therefore subject to a giant rent increase.

My lease only includes me and/or former roommates that no longer live here.  My lease says only the named occupant(s) is allowed to live here and expressly prohibits subleasing. Is there any way I can add/replace roommates?

In the past, the answer would’ve been “not unless you can change your landlord’s mind.” But thankfully our local government sometimes does things right, like recognizing the serious housing shortage and need for as much leniency as possible. So now the rent ordinance makes it possible for tenants to add roommates even if their rental agreements expressly prohibits doing so. You must ask your landlord for permission, in writing, to add the additional roommates. Your landlord has the right to ask for basic rental application information, which your prospective roommates must provide. If the landlord wants to deny permission for a potential roommate, they must provide a reason for doing so, in writing. If they do not deny or explicitly give permission within the prescribed time, then the roommates are deemed approved and you cannot be evicted for letting them move in.

This also applies to replacing roommates that have vacated.

Note that the new roommates will not have the same rights as the original occupants unless the landlord establishes a direct relationship with them (most commonly by accepting rent directly from the new roommates), so if you move out, the roommates will probably be subject to a giant rent increase.

There are also occupancy limits, the general rule being two people per room, though it technically depends on the square footage of the unit. However, it’s commonly accepted that a two bedroom can have up to four people, three bedroom up to six, etc. Refer to the San Francisco Rent Board website for details on the timeline for requesting and receiving permission to add or replace roommates.