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San Francisco Tenant Who Faced $6,755 Rent Hike Sues Landlord for Wrongful Eviction

The case of the displaced Bernal Heights acupuncturist just might have its day in court.

 

Deb Follingstad, the rent-control-protected tenant who faced an astounding 315 percent rent increase last spring, has filed a wrongful eviction suit against her former landlord, Nadia Lama. Follingstad, an acupuncturist who treats cancer patients, was served with a notice raising her rent from $2,145 to $8,900, and increasing her security deposit from $1,500 to $12,500. A photo of the new lease quickly went viral after Follingstad posted it to her Facebook page in March, garnering more than 7,000 shares. Unable to fight the increase, Follingstad moved out of the apartment, at 355 Bocana Street, in May. Since then she has struggled to find another rental she can afford, making do by stringing together a series of house-sitting arrangements. "I've cat-sat, dog-sat, even chicken-sat," she says. "I'm probably one of the most well-housed homeless people you'll ever meet."

The complaint, filed on August 18 in San Francisco Superior Court, characterizes the rent increase as an effective eviction and a violation of the city’s Rent Ordinance. According to the suit, which also names Lama's sisters, onetime property managers Claudia and Antoinette Lama, Nadia Lama moved into the unit after Follingstad left. Instead of going through the no-fault eviction procedure allowed under the Rent Ordinance for owner move-ins, the suit alleges, Lama attempted to go around the law by forcing Follingstad out with a drastic rent increase. In a normal no-fault eviction, Follingstad would have been entitled to a relocation payment of $9,258.67, according to the suit. Instead, she got no relocation money, and Lama even kept her $1,500 security deposit, Follingstad says.

Her attorney, Joseph Tobener, says, “I think it’s unfortunate that it’s come to this." When Nadia Lama gave notice of the rent increase, he says, "We sent a letter saying, Let’s resolve this. This client’s willing to work with you.”

Follingstad’s story, which swept local media last spring and provoked neighborhood backlash against the Lama family, gave San Franciscans a crash course in the intricacies of tenant law. Through a loophole in the law, Follingstad’s sudden $6,755 rent hike appeared to be legal. In San Francisco, rent control covers most rentals with a certificate of occupancy predating June 1979, if they are in multiunit buildings. Follingstad lived in a two-unit building and was covered by rent control. But the lower-level unit was illegal, which made it easy to demolish—that is, remove the plumbing that made it a habitable dwelling unit—without permission from the Planning Department. When Lama pulled the toilet out of the lower-level unit, in February, it became de-facto “storage space” for Follingstad’s apartment, and voila, she was suddenly living in a single-family home, and no longer protected by rent control. (Lama had only taken over the property in January, after resolving a legal dispute with her sisters, Claudia Lama and Antoinette Lama, who had been acting as landlords ever since the original landlord, their father Chuck Lama, died in 2012.) 

Follingstad, who is in her mid-40s, initially had the sympathy of the city, but when it came out that she was occasionally subletting her second bedroom on Airbnb, Follingstad faced backlash of her own. Lama’s attorney, Denise A. Leadbetter, used the Airbnb hook to portray the rent increase as an offer for a substantial amount of additional space, which would allow her to “offset the rent increase through her existing Air BnB business.” But, according to Tobener, the terms of the new lease stipulated that the additional space only be used as storage.

An email to Leadbetter has so far gone unreturned and her phone unanswered (her voicemail box is full).

The complaint also includes a litany of allegations of unsafe living conditions, from frequent gas leaks to a flooded garage to an unlocked lower level, left unsecured after the last tenant moved out of the bottom unit. When Follingstad installed her own locks on the downstairs apartment, Lama cut them, the suit says. There was also an old gas pump in the backyard—the building began its life as a service station in the 1920s—that gave off a "noxious smell." "Defendant Nadia Lama removed the pump and sold it online after she discovered it was valuable," the suit continues, leaving a hole that aggravated the odor. 

In September, Follingstad will move into a sublet in Bernal Heights, where she'll stay for the remainder of the year. Beyond that, she's still looking for a permanent home. "I've been so stressed," she says.

Tobener believes his client has a solid case. “I know we’re going to prevail,” he says. “We have perfect proof of a dominant motive.” Last March, KQED uncovered court documents detailing the dispute among the Lama siblings over their father’s estate. According to a settlement the family reached, Nadia Lama received the Bocana Street property and about $750,000, including $7,500 to hire a lawyer and evict the current tenant. At the time, Nadia Lama was living two doors down, in a building owned by her siblings, which she was required to leave by the end of April, or incur a rent hike of her own, to $4,000 per month. 

“She was given money by the family to handle the tenants in a principled way, and instead she increased the rent,” says Tobener. “I think a San Francisco jury is going to have a hard time with what she did, and they’re going to punish her for it.”

 

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