San Francisco renters are unionizing against Big Landlords as frustration over rent prices and alleged harassment reaches a boiling point


San Francisco passed a law requiring landlords to bargain with renters who want to organize.That was after the city’s biggest landlord, Veritas, allegedly refused to meet with its tenants.Veritas renters are looking for relief as rent costs — and inflation in general — spike nationwide.Sign up for our weekday newsletter, packed with original analysis, news, and trends — delivered right to your inbox.Renters in one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States just scored a big win: the right to organize, and the right to be heard by their landlords.

Last week, San Francisco’s new “Right to Organize” ordinance went into effect, requiring landlords to recognize tenant associations within their properties, attend tenant meetings at least four times per year, and bargain with tenant unions “in good faith.” If landlords fail to comply with the ordinance, renters can apply for a rent reduction as a penalty.The law is the first of its kind in the country.

Aaron Peskin, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, drafted the ordinance after overseeing negotiations between Veritas Investments, the largest landlord in San Francisco, and its tenants.The tenants clamored for Veritas, which is also the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging tenant harassment, to cancel rent debt accumulated during the pandemic.

In a statement to Insider, Veritas denied all claims.

“Tenants organized behind what is usually an individual source of shame — debt — and leveraged it as a group to win concessions from Veritas that would not otherwise have been possible,” Brad Hirn of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco told Capital and Main’s Jack Ross.

Peskin’s office said they want the law to facilitate better communication between landlords and tenants in San Francisco, while across the country, tenants in other cities are suffering from the same problems.The cost of monthly rent reached a record high in February.The federal eviction moratorium — which saved thousands of lives during the start of the pandemic, according to a Duke University study — ended in August, while 7.4 million households were behind on rent.

“It’s a union at home,” Lenea Maibaum, a Veritas tenant and an organizer of the Veritas Tenants’ Association, told Capital and Main.

“We’re all workers who can unionize at work.Now we can unionize at work and at home.”

Inching toward a seat at the bargaining table 106 Veritas renters sued the landlord for tenant harassment in 2019, alleging that the firm harassed rent-stabilized tenants by driving buildings into disrepair, ignored asbestos and mold growth in apartments, and invaded tenants’ privacy through incessant construction — all claims Veritas denies.

“We deny the claims, and look forward to disproving them yet again in court,” Jeff Jerden, Veritas’ Chief Operations Officer, told Insider in a statement.

After a five-month long strike last year, the Veritas Tenants’ Association announced that they had reached an agreement with Veritas to cancel debt for tenants and to waive rent increases for 2022.

In a statement to The San Francisco Business Times from January, however, Veritas said it has no agreement nor has it been in negotiations with either of the two groups that issued a press release saying they were ending a rent strike.The company said the tenants groups mischaracterized its public statement from December, where it announced a program guaranteeing that, if any of its residents apply for rent relief and see their benefit cut short due to lack of funding by the state, Veritas would cover it for up to 18 months.

Jerden said that while the company looks forward to having more channels of communication with tenants, it believes that characterizing the ordinance as pro-union is misleading.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re hearing from some residents about the misleading nature of rhetoric around the program, as people with political objectives have characterized these associations as ‘unions,’ despite no such language being present in the legislation,” Jerden said.”The full sum of the impact of the legislation is that it creates quarterly meeting sessions between the association and a property’s owner or manager.”

Jerden also pointed out that Charley Goss of the San Francisco Apartment Association told the Wall Street Journal , “We’re wary that the legislation will bring misconceptions that things are on the table and up for negotiation that aren’t.”

But that hasn’t stopped tenants wishing to organize from calling themselves a “union” — which simply describes a group of people coming together for collective political gain.Last week, members sent 15 letters to Veritas, presenting majority approval of tenant associations in 15 buildings asking that Veritas formally acknowledge their union under the new ordinance, according to Capital and Main.

“When Veritas was refusing to meet with their tenants, or saying there was no way they were going to meet with tenants if there was an advocate in the room, that’s when we cried foul,” Peskin’s aide, Lee Hepner, told Capital and Main.

“And ultimately that did fuel language in the legislation that says you can’t refuse to meet with tenants if they bring their own advocates.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Veritas Investments.


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