Uncertainty Looms for Many Renters Before Statewide Protections Kick in - Voice of San Diego

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Uncertainty Looms for Many Renters Before Statewide Protections Kick in

A new law capping rent increases across the state doesn’t kick in until Jan. 1. In the meantime, some tenants across the city say they’re being forced to choose between leaving their homes or swallowing big rent hikes.

Three days after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1482, San Diego renter Jessica Hurado received a letter from her landlord notifying her that rent for her apartment would soon be increasing by $850. / Photo by Megan Wood

Jessica Hurado is preparing to leave the North Park area apartment she’s called home for almost five years after facing the prospect of as much as a 54 percent spike in her monthly rent after a new owner bought the property.

Hurado got the bad news last month in a letter from the new owner, three days after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law limiting rent increases to 5 percent plus inflation starting in January. Landlords statewide will also be required to provide specific reasoning for evictions and to offer relocation assistance to tenants not considered at fault.

Her landlord said he’d be upping rents by $100 a month effective Nov. 1 and asking for more in the new year.

Hurado’s $1,400-a-month rent would balloon to $2,000 a month in 2020 – and increase another $150 if she chose to continue using the apartment’s garage.

Hurado viewed the notice as a threat.

“I kind of took the letter as, ‘I want you gone,’” said Hurado, who is set to move out later this month.

Hurado’s neighbor Ryan Allen, who has lived at the complex for nine years with his 13-year-old son, had a similar reaction to the notice.

Allen emailed new owner Josh Sistar and brought up the rent cap law.

Sistar’s response in an email shared with Voice of San Diego: “The AB 1482 doesn’t apply to us here in San Diego (yet). As it stands, I’m required to give 60 days’ notice to raise rents over 10% for long-term tenants. I’ve given 82 days’ notice.”

Sistar later asked Allen if it would help if he increased the rent more slowly.

Allen tried to explain that the new law prevents Sistar from increasing rents above the cap plus the cost-of-living adjustment – 7.2 percent in the city – beginning in January.

After more contentious emails, Allen decided to move out rather than argue with Sistar.

In a separate email exchange with VOSD, Sistar had no apologies.

“The issue I had with my renters is their rent hasn’t been increased in several years, and they were disappointed I wanted to raise rents to reflect current market value,” Sistar wrote. “They’re staying in a two-bedroom cute apartment in the heart of North Park for $1,400. Those places go for $2,000. Rent control doesn’t allow landlords to raise rents to current market values.”

Sistar is right in that there’s a short window before the law kicks in, during which landlords can get rid of tenants more easily, then hike rents before the cap goes into effect. Reports of landlords doing exactly that have appeared up and down the state.

The extent to which it’s happening in San Diego isn’t clear. Data from the San Diego County Superior Court also shows unlawful detainer filings pursued by landlords aiming to force out tenants have been slightly down the past few weeks compared with last year.

Attorneys who represent tenants and landlords believe a local regulation is shielding tenants from the wave of evictions. The city’s existing Tenants’ Right to Know ordinance already requires landlords to provide at least one of nine specific reasons before booting a renter who has lived at a property for more than two years.

But renters and their landlords are continuing to grapple with a tough market and unpredictability despite rules meant to create more certainty.

Apartment industry officials and attorneys who represent property owners say they are advising landlords to follow the new law.

Molly Kirkland, director of public affairs for Southern California Rental Housing Association, said her organization set up a series of trainings to help owners get up to speed. She said a particularly hot topic has been the need for landlords who have increased rents above the cap since mid-March to reduce those increases in 2020.

“What we tell people in the room essentially is, ‘We’re here to teach you how to comply with the law,’” Kirkland said. “’We have no interest in teaching you how to get around it.’”

But things can get messy and tense when a new owner takes over a unit or complex with longtime tenants.

Southeastern San Diego resident Juanita Carreto and her family are grappling with what to do next now that they’ve received multiple letters and eviction notices in the weeks before and after a new owner took over the dilapidated Mountain View home they have lived in for more than seven years.

Carreto, her family and the property management company who manage it dispute many of the details of the situation but what’s clear is that the family will be forced to leave their home before the end of the year.

Carreto received an initial 60-day eviction notice from Hemet-based Viper Property Management in late September that did not list one of the specific exemptions required under the city ordinance. Around the same time, Carreto said she talked to a representative for the former owner about potentially paying $2,000 a month beginning in late November, though Carreto said she said she wouldn’t agree unless repairs were made. Carreto has for years paid $1,325 a month.

Carreto soon learned World Equities LLC, which shares an address with the property management company, had taken over ownership of the home she lives in. It was unclear whether the company and thus Carreto’s home will soon be subject to the rent cap law, which generally omits single-family homes but was written to target corporations and trusts that own many homes.

Juanita Carreto sits at the dining table of her home with eviction papers laid out in front of her, wondering where she will be living in two months. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In mid-October, Carreto received a notice that she had not fully paid rent. Family members said Carreto was not immediately sure where to send her rent or about how much she owed after learning that a new owner had taken over. They shared an invoice showing she paid the rent days after receiving the notice and speaking directly with the property management company.

Late last month, Carreto received a second 60-day eviction notice explaining that the new owner plans to take the property off the rental market, an exemption allowed under both the existing city ordinance and the new state law.

The tension ratcheted up as workers have started making repairs on the property.

On Saturday night, a family friend was arrested after a confrontation with property management company workers. Police say the 36-year-old was booked into jail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and criminal threats after he swung a knife several times.

Debbie Rodriguez, an extended family member who lives with Carreto, described the incident as a misunderstanding. Rodriguez said she is trying to help Carreto seek legal help as the process moves forward.

In an interview with VOSD, Viper general manager Jim Nelson said the family must move so the property can be fully rehabilitated.

“They’re just trying to cause as much of a problem as they possibly can,” he said.

Nelson questioned the family’s citizenship status and openly pondered whether his company’s encounters with her family could be fodder for Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Rodriguez told VOSD that no one living in the home is undocumented.

Once the family leaves, Nelson said the company hopes to re-rent or sell the property so it can pull in more income to cover the property’s monthly mortgage bill.

“The bank doesn’t care about excuses. They want their money and that’s what I have to look at in all seriousness,” Nelson said. “I have to look at cold, hard reality.”

Reality is also hitting Carreto, who fears her two grandchildren could be forced to switch schools when the family moves. She’s not sure where the family will go.

“I can’t sleep,” Carreto said.

Miles away, Holly Roeder and her boyfriend are also wrestling with what to do next. They have lived in their Crown Point apartment for three-and-half years and got a small dog soon after moving in.

A few months ago, residents learned there was a new owner and on Sept. 30, month-to-month tenants including Roeder got a notice from property management company Ashcraft Investment Company informing them that they would be receiving a new agreement to sign and that the complex would become “a no pet property.” Pets would need to move out by Nov. 1.

Roeder interpreted the notice as a way to boot multiple tenants before the rent cap law takes effect.

“I’m not going to get rid of my dog, so you’re basically telling me I have to leave too,” she said.

Roeder said she has yet to sign the agreement. She’s bracing for what might come next.

Sarah Quincy, the Ashcraft property manager who has been communicating with tenants, wrote in an email to VOSD that animals who meets federal requirements will be allowed to stay but that the new owner directed her company to implement the no-pet policy.

“Currently, the onsite manager picks up about 10 to 25 dog feces throughout the property daily,” Quincy wrote. “The no-pet policy should assist in dramatically reducing the amount of dog feces at the property and therefore making it a more enjoyable place to live.”

Quincy said these and other changes are not meant to force tenants out but Roeder questions whether she’ll live there much longer.

Across town in City Heights, Catherine Mendonça is holding on for now.

Mendonça, an organizer with rent control advocacy group San Diego Tenants United, learned over the summer that a new owner had taken over the nine-unit complex she’s lived in for nearly eight years.

More than two weeks after Newsom signed the rent cap measure, Mendonça and her domestic partner received a notice that the rent for their one-bedroom apartment would rise from $1,095 to $1,200 come Jan. 1 – an increase above the amount allowed under the new law.

Mendonça approached the new owner’s agent as he handed out notices late last month. She questioned whether it complied with the new law.

Mendonça said the agent seemed confused. He returned with an updated notice five days later.

The new notice advised the couple they would instead see a rent hike just under 7 percent, an increase that complies with the new law.

Mendonça said she’s trying to speak with her neighbors to ensure they know their rights.

“It feels as though a lot of the landlords rely on somebody just paying an increase and not disputing it at all,” Mendonça said. “I don’t get the sense that landlords are going to let someone know their rights as a tenant.”

The agent Mendonça spoke with about her rent increase did not return multiple messages from VOSD.

Christian Curry, an attorney who represents tenants, said these scenarios underscore the need for tenants to speak up and where appropriate, seek legal help to enforce the law – whether it’s the rent cap law or other protections.

For example, Curry said, tenants shouldn’t feel compelled to sign new month-to-month agreements with substantially different terms, such as bans on pets that were previously allowed, or to accept new charges for amenities like garages previously included in a lease.

“There’s no landlord-tenant police,” Curry said. “Your rights are procedural. You have to stand up for them, or they don’t exist.”

Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report.

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