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Sympathy for the Landlord

They’re greedy. They’re parasitic. They’re trying to fleece us all. It’s a familiar battle cry in San Francisco’s raging rental wars. But the truth is far more complicated.

Gatekeepers Good and Bad: If a landlord with a heart of gold embodies the city we used to be, today's "landlords from hell" represent the city we’ve become.

The Righteous Landlord sits on the deck of his two-story Ashbury Heights stucco, an august perch that a career in San Francisco real estate will afford. The vista of the Mission and Bernal Heights stretching out to the bay is deceptively peaceful, but inside those pastel row houses, a frenzied rental market shifts and pulses and seeks its limit: $2,200 studios and $3,500 one-bedrooms; U-Hauls moving activists and young parents to the Peninsula and the East Bay; tech kids pulling up behind them in Zipvans loaded with Design Within Reach repro Eames loungers and vintage foosball tables. A few miles away, the S.F. Rent Board is inundated with tenant petitions against $2,000-a-month rent hikes, and bike messengers deliver another pile of eviction notices every day. On this sunny summer morning, the Great Recession and the real estate crash that followed it feel like aeons ago. The city is changing: You need only check Craigslist or Zumper to see it being rented out to the highest bidder, unit by unit.

For landlords, all this means opportunity. As big money takes over the city with a voracity and finality that make the dot-com boom seem almost quaint, there’s a rich vein of gold in them thar hills—or at least in the bay-windowed apartment buildings that cover them.

Yet this landlord, 65 years old, gray-haired and a little paunchy in a T-shirt and shorts, insists that he is not like the infamous property owners (the tenant-gouging Sangiacomos, the Lembis and their gun-wielding thugs) that we know and hate. He supports rent control to keep the city diverse, he says. Tears come to his eyes as he waxes on about providing decent housing for ordinary folks: “It’s the right thing to do. Everyone always says, what’s in it for me?” He criticizes owners who rent out their units on Airbnb—taking apartments out of the rental stock and churning through a different set of tenants every week “doesn’t serve the long-term residents of a community,” he says.

In 19 years, the Righteous Landlord has displaced just two people from his 12-unit Richmond property—and then only temporarily, to do renovations. If anything, this landlord seems unusually hands-on and proactive: He seismically retrofitted his entire building 10 years before the Board of Supervisors required it. Yes, he is disliked by a tenant whose bike he has banned from the garage. True, he’s a little OCD about dirt on the hallway carpet. But he has also put through several rounds of renovations totaling more than $500,000, including installation of safety-glass door panels, motion-sensor lights in the laundry room, and 16 surveillance cameras. He sweeps the sidewalks and vacuums top-to-bottom every week. He is, in short, a real-life manifestation of a kind of San Francisco land- lord we have come to believe no longer exists. Most of us would happily endure 11 months of fog to snag one of his units, if any were available and we could swing the deposit. Will he at least allow his name to be used as an example of a good-guy landlord, a type thought to be “as rare as a unicorn who doesn’t poop rainbows,” as one Twitter wag put it?

Absolutely not.

The landlord was quoted once before—on a story that had nothing to do with real estate—and it brought him no end of grief. Speaking out on a topic as toxic as the rent wars would be plain stupid. On the San Francisco Tenants Union website, after all, landlords are represented by a GIF of the Monopoly game’s Rich Uncle Pennybags being pounded on the head by the people’s fist. When TV journalist Scott James confessed in the New York Times that he preferred leaving his Castro in-law unit vacant to dealing with the city’s tenant laws, an online commenter told him to “cry me a river” and someone emailed him a computer virus in revenge.

So the Righteous Landlord’s reticence is understandable. He knows that cynics will inevitably see all those capital improvements as a sneaky way to get around rent laws (one longtime tenant in a one-bedroom, for example, is paying $273 for improvements on top of $680 in rent). Instead of praising him for protecting his property from vandals and earthquakes, they’ll accuse him of spying on his tenants and sticking them with the bill. He knows the best course of action is to keep his head down and his mouth shut, especially now, when the city’s landlords are more reviled than ever. “You’re damned if you do,” he tells me, “and damned if you don’t.”

It wasn’t so long ago that the mom-and-pop landlord was a beloved San Francisco icon, like Rice-A-Roni and cable cars. The archetype was Anna Madrigal in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the mysterious, ever-tolerant landlady who curated her Russian Hill building like a museum of eccentrics. It is probably not a coincidence that this sunny vision was published in 1978, a year before rent control was passed.

Back in 2007, I was a (slightly) more worldly version of another Maupin archetype: the wide-eyed Midwesterner who moves to San Francisco to seek fame or fortune (or, in my case, to take a six-month internship). I crashed for a few weeks at my sister’s $900 studio on Nob Hill, but it had just been acquired by the notorious Lembi-owned CitiApartments, which bought out every possible tenant, my sister included, with plans to convert the building into corporate condos. Mercifully, I was rescued by a Mrs. Madrigal type on Craigslist: a Muni driver paying the mortgage on the Mission Victorian where she had grown up. Saying that she had “a good feeling” about me and without asking for references or a credit report, she offered me a bedroom with hardwood floors, an ivory fireplace, and my own bathroom. Rent: $705 a month. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Then Zynga, Square, and Pinterest moved in, and there went the neighborhood. If a pot-growing, gender-bending landlady with a heart of gold embodies the city we used to be, this summer’s headlines offered villains who seemed to reflect the city we’ve become: “the landlords from hell.” A software developer named Kip Macy and his wife, Nicole, were facing four years each in state prison for terrorizing tenants in the Clementina Street building that they had hoped to convert into condos—threatening their renters with deportation, soaking their bed sheets in ammonia, even sawing a chunk out of one man’s living room floor, Wile E. Coyote–style. See, the story seemed to suggest, you welcome them to mid-Market with tax breaks one day, and they’re cutting through your floor joists the next.

Because everyone who rents in San Francisco these days—more than 60 percent of the people who live here—is feeling so precarious, landlords are the city’s de facto scapegoat. A recent Bay Guardian op-ed urged people to stop complaining about techies and instead train their crosshairson the “profit-gobbling real estate companies and speculators” that it argued are at the root of gentrification—not just reacting to this money-flush market, but driving it. So jaded are we now that if Mrs. Madrigal were still in that Barbary Lane three-story, we’d expect her to evict Mouse for not being on the original lease and then jack up the rent to $4,000. (According to Zumper, Russian Hill just surpassed South Beach as the priciest neighborhood in the city for one-bedrooms.)

But if you actually talk to landlords—if you listen to their stories at their monthly meetings, if you read their frustrated comments on SFGate—you can’t help wondering: Did money-grubbing mom-and-pops make San Francisco this way, or did something else skew and distort the city we used to know? Why do we expect a class of largely small-business types—ordinary men and women with health problems, kids to put through college, and retirement nest eggs obliterated in the recession—to provide a public service by keeping the city not just affordable but with its vintage charm intact, when owners of newer luxury buildings and commercial properties are under no such obligation?

The San Francisco rental market has become coldly Darwinian—and the only way that maladapted finches like me (our survival skills derived from degrees in liberal arts, not computer science) have managed to hang on this long is by scoring one of those endangered species preserves known as rent-controlled apartments. The single, overwhelming downside is that we can never, ever leave the preserve, or we’ll asphyxiate in the Google bus’s dust. But is it really fair to ask small-time landlords to cut us a break just because we’re creative and nostalgic and we like hardwood floors?

Page two: Do we over-burden mom-and-pop landlords?  

 

We burden mom-and-pop landlords with all kinds of expectations and baggage that we don’t impose on more corporate types. That’s partly because they are, well, moms and pops, with all the psychodrama that those words imply, and partly because they are such a prominent feature of the rental picture here. A 2003 study (old, but still the most recent solid data available) found that 75 percent of landlords in the city owned fewer than 10 units; 42 percent lived in a building that they rented out. They were also much more likely to manage their own rental properties than landlords nationwide, increasing the potential for friction with their tenants, and they held on to those buildings longer—three decades was not unusual. An estimated 80 percent of rent-controlled properties in San Francisco are mom-and-pop owned.

Mrs. Madrigal and Kip and Nicole Macy may represent the extremes of our collective fantasies and fears, but Jackie Tom is closer to the complicated reality. Tom’s day job is running Rentals in SF, a high-end leasing agency (she was named the San Francisco Apartment Association’s 2009 Leasing Agent of the Year), but she also owns 30 rental units (which earned her the same group’s recognition as 2010 Independent Owner of the Year). From her perspective, not surprisingly, “it’s a great market! It’s a really great market!” That’s not to say that she’s 100 percent thrilled by the nearly 10 percent uptick in prices last year. The new-normal rents—$1,900 for what she calls a “dark cave” of a basement one-bedroom in Alamo Square (bid up by $700 by a horde of hungry applicants), $3,500 for a pet-friendly one-bedroom in NoPa—exclude many deserving potential tenants, Tom admits. “I know schoolteachers, dog walkers who can’t afford to live in the city, so I’m kind of torn with it. I have a soft spot for those guys because they’re good people too.” Eighteen years ago, Tom might have been among the excluded. A native of the city with a business degree from San Francisco State, she was earning just $35,000 a year at her data sales job and she had a Great Dane—dog owners are a category of renters that many landlords automatically dismiss. Still, she was hardworking and very smart, managing to buy her first property at age 30 with a $6,000 credit card advance and other loans. She never doubted the wisdom of her overall investments, though sometimes the financial strain felt unbearable: “I remember lying in bed thinking, I’ve lost it, I’ve lost my shirt.”

These days, Tom’s job puts her on the front line of the San Francisco culture wars. Some of her landlord clients don’t like tech workers: “They think they’re arrogant and make too much money and don’t appreciate the [living] space,” she says. She, on the other hand, has no problem with techies. For her own rentals, “I tend to look at all the applications and pick the people with pets,” she says, ever the dog enthusiast. She also gravitates toward people who “love my units. Those make the best tenants.” And of course, they must have the income—she looks for at least three times rent. “I go through their bios and pick those who stood out to me and then run credit. I pick tenants based on total overall package.”

For the unit she posted online in early July, she was feeling especially choosy: It was the basement studio in her own home, a Lower Haight Victorian. Of her future tenants, she told me, “I don’t want to come home feeling like, ‘Oh God. They’re there.’ I want to like them.” So she set the rent under-market—at $2,100—to widen the applicant pool.

It was a fine idea, but also perhaps unintentionally cruel, raising vain hopes in many candidates who never stood a chance. More than 40 of them gathered for the 15-minute open house as if for a Banana Republic model casting call: designer glasses, red chinos, messenger bags. As soon as they walked in the door, the haggling began. “What if I wrote you a check right now for $2,400?” one woman asked.

Within a day, Tom had received applications from 16 hopefuls. They offered up to $300 more than the listed rent, leading Tom to conclude, “Anytime you price it below, it comes right back to market.”

One prospect, Jon, called to say that he really liked the place, his tone friendly but not pushy. He was a techie with a high income and good credit—and he had a dog. Tom decided to check his references first.

But when I emailed her a few weeks later, I was surprised—or not—to discover that Jon hadn’t gotten the place after all. “I got an offer to rent it furnished.... Much easier for me,” Tom wrote me. “A really nice guy here on business, moving in next week.” He’s a dog lover who happens to earn $150,000 a year; he’ll pay $3,400 a month. “I got so busy suddenly, sick mom, busy market, that one less thing I had to do [moving furniture] was very attractive,” she added. What Tom didn’t have to say is that short-term rentals tend to be far more lucrative than regular ones. In six months, she’ll be free once again to charge whatever the market will bear.

Any landlord of a San Francisco property knows why finding a high-paying tenant is so important: Once someone is in, it’s nearly impossible to get him out, and the landlord loses more and more money on that apartment with each passing year. Cue the rent control debate (though because so many S.F. voters are renters, it’s not a debate that gets very far). The first rent control laws, inspired by the aforementioned Sangiacomos, seem astonishingly pro-landlord by today’s standards—for example, owner-occupied buildings of four units or fewer were exempted. In 1994, price controls were extended to those mom-and-pop properties. That’s when landlord-tenant relations really turned ugly.

Many tenants will tell you, rightly, that there’s no way they could afford to live in the city today if it weren’t for the ordinance that regulates rent increases for tenants in properties built before 1979—some 171,609 units, or about 70 percent of the rental stock in San Francisco. This year’s allowable increase is 1.9 percent. “With the prices here now, Chinatown would not be Chinatown, the Mission wouldn’t be the Mission, without rent control,” says Delene Wolf, the Rent Board’s executive director.

Yet landlords—as well as respected economists on both the right and left—counter that this protection actually hurts many tenants. Artificial price controls encourage people to hold on to their units for dear life, freezing up the housing supply for the rest of us. When a unit becomes vacant, landlords often try to make up for lost income by charging as much as possible, further inflating the market. And rent control doesn’t discriminate by income level or neighborhood, so a programmer lucky enough to have scored an art deco Nob Hill flat after the 2008 crash is benefiting just as much as, if not more than, the grocery worker struggling to keep her Outer Excelsior home. (One survey of city tenants found that 19 percent of rent-controlled units were occupied by people earning more than $100,000 a year.) “You can’t go to the deli on the corner and say, ‘I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 25 years—can I buy a burrito for $1.99?’” says Bill Alvarado, a landlord who nearly went broke after inheriting his parents’ two-unit property in Cole Valley—and its tenant (he averted disaster by selling). “With a fixed sales price, you can’t run a business with rising costs.”

Then there are the city’s tight eviction controls. In most other parts of the Bay Area, landlords are like employers in a right-to-work state—they can fire a tenant at will. In San Francisco, tenants with rent control are the equivalent of union workers—they can be booted only for “just cause”: for example, failure to pay rent, habitual late payments, breach of lease, or being a nuisance. The law also provides a couple of “no fault” reasons to evict: The owner or his family want to move in, or the owner wants to take his units off the rental market altogether as permitted under the 1985 Ellis Act. In both of those scenarios, the landlord is required to pay out a city-mandated relocation fee. Disabled and senior tenants have additional protections, so in some cases they’re all but impossible to kick out. The effect of these laws is all kinds of distortion in the market. Landlords, for instance, whisper that the provision meant to protect the disabled and the elderly from being evicted discourages property owners from renting to them in the first place. (Prospective tenants who are lawyers also get the shaft.) Owners have an incentive to try to force out tenants who cost them money—maybe torturing them with nonstop construction or barraging them with trumped-up eviction notices to see what happens. (Indeed, attempted evictions are at an 11-year high—1,757 in the year ending in March—though still 16 percent below 2001–02.) One elderly property manager I meet at the Rent Board admits to installing cameras to catch tenants in violation of their lease. “The tenants don’t like ’em, but if you don’t like it, move!” he tells me. Other landlords just send notices to tenants informing them that their rent is being raised by an (illegal) amount, counting on the tenants’ ignorance or fear to keep them from protesting. “Most tenants do what their landlords tell them to do,” says Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union. But one of the more dismaying things about the rent laws is that they can force perfectly decent people—like a mild-mannered retired firefighter from Las Vegas named Al Alcalde, whom I met this spring—into positions that make them look, and feel, like jerks.

Page three: Does rent control foster cheating?

 

Alcalde is no real estate shark—he’s just the executor of his deceased uncle’s estate, charged with selling the old man’s Portola district house. When Alcalde went to take a look at the property last September, he discovered an off-the-books tenant: a shambling 69-year-old retiree named Frank Angelos who said that his rent was $500 a month. Alcalde’s realtor told him that an elderly tenant could bring down the selling price by $100,000, and Angelos promised to leave as soon as he found a new place. But months later he was still at the house, and Alcalde was on the hook for mortgage payments, insurance, utilities, and taxes. Under city law, not having a formal rental agreement isn’t grounds for eviction. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a nightmare!’” Alcalde says.

However, single-family homes are exempt from rent control for tenants who took up residency after 1996. So Alcalde raised the rent to $2,600, and Angelos protested to the Rent Board. At a hearing in May, Alcalde offered to give Angelos—who now revealed that he was suffering from cancer, which Alcalde didn’t know—another 90 days, rent-free, to move. “There’s no animosity here,” Alcalde’s attorney said. “I don’t want to get too Godfather-ish about it—it’s just business.” Family members urged Alcalde to change the locks or kick Angelos out. “I’ve thought of a lot of things,” he tells me, “but you can’t do it. You’ll get in trouble. I understand his situation, too—he’s elderly, he can’t just leave.” Finally, in July, he and Angelos struck a bargain: Angelos would relocate to a new place in South San Francisco, and Alcalde would throw in $4,500 in relocation money and a 1989 Ford. The house will fetch a lot more than it would have with Angelos living there, and Alcalde expects to pocket a broker’s fee. But that’s all he’ll get—per his uncle’s wishes, the proceeds of the sale will go to a cousin in Peru.

It’s not PC to say so in this anti-landlord city, but plenty of tenants lie and cheat too. Two can play at that game. On a May morning at the Rent Board, Mohamed Ahmed, a gray-suited Century 21 broker from Hillsborough accompanied by a lawyer and a typographer, sits across a table from Ethel M., a worn-looking woman in her 50s with her boyfriend at her side. These hearings often end up playing out like reality TV, and this one is no exception.

In 2002, Ahmed bought the Excelsior building where Ethel’s elderly mother had lived since the ’60s (and where Ethel had been raised). Ahmed learned in March that the mother had died back in January, though he’d gotten a $572 rent check for February. (“Somehow [she] came out of the grave to send me the rent check and pull the wool over my eyes,” Ahmed quips.) When he called, instead of acknowledging her mother’s death, Ethel pretended to be the old woman, Ahmed claims. Later she said that she had been living with her mother, but because she wasn’t on the lease, she wasn’t eligible for the rent-controlled rate. When she didn’t pay the April rent on time, Ahmed won an eviction. Then he raised the rent to $1,800, effective in July. Now Ethel is trying to negotiate. What if she agrees to pay $1,800 and first and last months’ deposit, her boyfriend asks. Can she stay? “No,” Ahmed responds with a slashing movement of his hand. After the hearing, Ethel turns away from the table in tears.

As a lowly tenant myself, I find my natural sympathies tending toward Team Ethel. She seems to have had a rough time of it in life, and the hearing is hard to watch. But when I call Ahmed for his side, he insists that Ethel’s impersonation of her mother is only part of the story, and he rattles off a laundry list of complaints from other tenants. “Get the notion out of your head that my desire to get this woman out of there is just to get market rent,” he declares. “When you have a bad tenant, it’s like a marriage—you don’t want to be with them.” The Rent Board ended up siding with Ahmed, and the sheriff evicted Ethel in June. “I’m an immigrant, and I came here with nothing,” Ahmed tells me. “The world has been fair to me, and I try to be fair.” To him, Ethel was the one not playing by the rules.

If every scheming tenant was just trying to hold on to her childhood home, it would be one thing. But a lot of cheaters—for example, a friend of mine whom I’ll call Anne—hardly qualify as desperate. Last fall, Anne decided to move her fledgling business out of her home and use a colleague’s one-bedroom in a great neighborhood ($950 a month) as a shared office. There was just one problem: The colleague was now living elsewhere, which meant that the flat was no longer her primary residence and, thus, that she was no longer entitled to rent control. “It was totally illegal, what we were doing,” Anne admits.

She figures that the landlord must have gotten wise to the ruse after a maintenance check, because he scheduled another inspection. The women scrambled to make it look like Anne’s friend still lived there—bedding on a blow-up mattress, cosmetics on the dresser, wine on the kitchen counter. “It was like a staging,” Anne says. The landlord wasn’t fooled, though, and he bumped the rent to $2,500. “There are so many people looking for places to live. I don’t blame him,” Anne says.

Many owners have been cracking down on renters by trawling Airbnb—subleasing your place for less than 30 days is illegal in the city. (Never mind that lots of landlords use Airbnb too.) Another common ploy, as recent transplant Ginger C. discovered, is the gouging of roommates by the main tenant (the one on the lease)—also illegal. Ginger found herself in this position when, apartment-hunting from New York, she spotted a Craigslist ad for a room in a three-bedroom Pacific Heights carriage house. Rent: $2,000 a month. She skyped with the “master tenant,” Cynthia M., a blond beauty who is a regular on the gala circuit, often on the arm of a well-known society scion, and wired Cynthia $6,000 in rent and deposits. “The market in New York is also really hot,” Ginger says, “so I’m like, well, if that’s what I need to do...”

But things quickly went awry. After just a month in the city, Ginger suddenly found herself unemployed. Cynthia, who worked from home as a stylist, banned her from the apartment during the day, forcing her to search online job listings from a nearby café. When Ginger asked to see the rent check, Cynthia told her that her father handled payments and that she didn’t know the total. (That’s unlawful, by the way: A master tenant is required to disclose the full amount.)

Finally, Ginger spotted a notice revealing that the total rent was $3,666, of which Cynthia’s share came to a measly $406. (Cynthia claimed that she was actually paying $50 more.) Because the apartment was rent-controlled, Cynthia was also benefiting financially from the landlord’s inability to charge market prices. (The going rate for three-bedrooms in the neighborhood is $6,000 and climbing.) Ginger moved out and filed a Rent Board petition against Cynthia in hopes of recovering some of her money.

At the June hearing, Cynthia argued that the rent she was charging was fair because she had furnished the whole apartment, including Ginger’s room. “I feel...just a little bit of harassment,” she complained. But the Rent Board sided with Ginger, ordering Cynthia to reimburse her ex-roommate to the tune of $3,774.

The most telling part of the story is that Cynthia didn’t lose her sweet deal. In San Francisco, overcharging subtenants may be illegal, but it’s not grounds for eviction or even for raising the master tenant’s rent. After Ginger moved out, she spotted a Craigslist ad for her old room. The ideal candidate had to like labradoodles, fresh flowers, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The posted rent: $2,000, later lowered to $1,750. The amount that the Rent Board ruled was fair: $1,371.

Page four: In search of the perfect landlord.

 

Back in 1990, when rent control was just entering its adolescence, Melanie Griffith and Michael Keaton made a cheesy film called Pacific Heights with a plot so pro-landlord that it might have been written by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. (The IMDb blurb: “A couple works hard to renovate their dream house and become landlords to pay for it. Unfortunately, one of their tenants has plans of his own.”) Two decades later, I’m struck by the number of small-time landlords I’ve met who started out with the best of intentions, only to find themselves morphing into versions of the Griffith character and her hapless husband, with the migraines and legal bills to prove it.

A writer whom I’ll call Sharon owns a three-flat building in Glen Park with her ex. For years, they’ve lived in adjacent units in an oh-so-civilized arrangement to share custody of their son. They used to rent the remaining flat to a geneticist and his wife. Relations were “very cordial, very friendly,” Sharon recalls—she and the wife sometimes had lunch together. But as Sharon’s son got older, she realized that they needed more space, so the tenants had to go. Cozy relations soon froze into a cold war, the wife stopped talking to her, and she had to come up with $9,000 in relocation costs to get the couple out. “After that, I’m like, I don’t think I want to get that close to tenants ever again,” she says.

Or take a first-time home buyer—pseudonym Carol—who works for the city government. Inspired, of course, by visions of living in Tales of the City harmony with artistic neighbors, she rented out the second condo in her Lower Haight duplex to a friend who worked as a designer at Levi’s. Then, when the friend asked for a break in the rent, Carol hastily agreed before crunching the numbers and realizing that she wouldn’t be able to cover her costs. “I readily admit, my husband and I are not finance people,” she says. Before long, she was facing foreclosure. Meanwhile, the friend stuck her with an unauthorized subtenant who proved to be a nuisance and then refused to leave, costing Carol $50,000 in lawyer’s fees and lost rent to get him out. After that, she sold off the second unit, vowing, “I never, ever will be a landlord ever again.”

She’s not the only one: Some 35,000 rental units were vacant in 2010—an unknown number taken off the market by the fed-up Scott Jameses of the city—exacerbating the city’s housing crunch.

Meanwhile, San Francisco landlords are skewing much more corporate and faceless. As the biggest wave of new construction in recent memory comes to fruition, thousands of units will soon open up from Market Street to SoMa to Treasure Island to Hunters Point. The new construction may help ease the rental market by siphoning off the luxury tenants who compete with us mere mortals on Craigslist. Although developers are required to provide some affordable housing in the mix, the vast majority of the new units will not be subject to city rent or eviction controls—and you can be sure that the mom-and-pop landlords of pre-1979 buildings are griping about the double standard.

Still, not everyone is complaining. Michael Castleman is a sixtysomething freelance health reporter turned mystery novelist. An earlier novel of his, A Killing in Real Estate, features a couple who’ve outgrown their Mission place but can’t afford to move. In real life, Castleman was a lot savvier, putting his savings toward a five-unit building near 17th and Dolores in 1991, and then, after the dot-com crash, picking up a property at 16th and Valencia and another run-down building filled with immigrant tenants on Albion Street, near Guerrero. He’s figured out how a creative type can afford San Francisco: by becoming a landlord himself.

But far from trying to kick out his tenants with rent control, Castleman asks them what they want fixed. When a unit does come vacant, he’ll price it at 10 to 15 percent below market. “I don’t invest to maximize my financial return,” he says, sounding like a modern-day Mr. Madrigal. “I invest to maximize my personal happiness. A good return is an element of happiness, but there are other elements.” Mainly, he wants rental income without hassles. If tenants know that they’re getting a deal, they’re less likely to complain about little things. Does this market tempt Castleman to reconsider his strategy? “Of course,” he admits. “But I don’t want to be an asshole. I could make a couple thousand dollars more a month, but for the couple thousand dollars, I’d be buying a lot of headaches. I’d rather use my time writing fiction.”

The truth is that, for all the temptations and market pressures, there are plenty of Righteous Landlords still out there trying to keep the San Francisco we know and love from slipping from our collective grasp. Even Sarah Shortt, executive director of the pro-renter Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, concedes that this is so. When I ask her for referrals to mom-and-pops who don’t gouge their tenants, she makes me swear that I’m not writing an anti–rent control screed. Then she agrees to “rustle up some anomalies.”

She doesn’t have to look far. As it turns out, Shortt, one of the most vocal defenders of tenants’ rights and a sworn enemy of landlords, big and small, has a good-guy landlord of her own. A year ago, she moved into a rent-controlled one-bedroom near 22nd and Valencia, one of the most coveted locations in the city. She says that the landlord raised the existing rent a mere $100, to a very below-market $1,250 (a one-bedroom down the street goes for $3,150). He told another tenant who offered up to $900 a month that he’d be satisfied with just $800. “This guy is super compassionate and human,” she says, “and also maybe a little crazy.” He may be crazy, but he’s no fool: When I call him to find out more, he doesn’t want to say a word.

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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