One issue that we see come up frequently involves “illegal” units. Many tenants have no idea that they live in an illegal unit or what that might mean. Whether your apartment is illegal or not can be significant and impact your tenancy and rights.
Illegal units are residential dwelling units that lack a “certificate of final completion and occupancy.” Certificates of occupancy are issued by the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. If an apartment has a certificate of occupancy that signifies the City knows it exists, has approved it for residential use, and that it was built with the necessary permits.
The most common type of illegal unit is the “in-law” or mother-in-law apartment. These are typically studio or one-bedroom apartments. They often have a separate entrance and an address. Usually the address has a letter like "A" or a weird number like "1/2" identifying it. Illegal units can also be industrial or commercial space that has been converted to residential use without city approval.
A space that satisfies City code requirements can still be illegal if the owner failed to obtain the necessary permits. Generally, these units are not up to code and many have substantial problems that can pose health and safety dangers for tenants.
Just because your apartment has a mailbox, a separate entrance and its own address doesn’t mean it is legal. If you live in an in-law unit the chances are it’s illegal. If you want to know for sure your best bet is to look online at the San Francisco Planning Department’s “Property Information Map.” Simply type in your address and look at the number of units listed for the address. Be aware this information may not be 100% accurate. For more information consider taking a trip to the Planning Department or Department of Building Inspection to look up the address.
It may not matter in your situation but the old adage that knowledge is power holds true here. Whether your apartment is legal or not could be a matter of personal safety.
If your apartment is illegal there is no guarantee that it is safe to live in. Many lack sufficient fire proofing, two fire exits, or a secure/stable electrical system. You may be acting under a false assumption that you are living in a safe environment. Even if you don’t intend to move, knowing about potential risks can help you plan in the event of a fire or other hazard.
Additionally, the status of your apartment can impact your ability to stay in your home long-term. It is illegal for a landlord to rent out or charge rent to a tenant in an illegal unit. If you contact the City to complain about a problem in the apartment (lack of heat, mold, mice, etc.), the City will send an inspector out to take a look. If they determine the unit is illegal this could start a domino effect that could put your tenancy at risk.
This also makes tenants in these units a target for eviction or buyouts – particularly where a landlord is considering selling the building. Generally speaking buyers don’t want to inherit unnecessary risk. A tenant in an illegal unit represents such a risk.
Potentially, yes. Because landlords are barred from renting out illegal units, you may have legal claims against your landlord. Your landlord could be liable for presenting the unit as a legal dwelling unit when they knew, or should have known it was illegal. These units often have other problems like lack of heat, insufficient insulation or protections from water intrusion, which can give rise to other legal claims. In fact, you may have a right to a return of your rent going back four years. Every situation varies so be sure to discuss your case with a tenant attorney to find out what your options are.
Probably not. In the past San Francisco landlords could bring a demolition eviction in these situations. However, San Francisco has made it very difficult for landlords to demolish these units. Current city policy is to compel landlords to bring these units up to code. However, this isn’t always feasible. If your landlord attempts or is able to obtain a permit to demolish the unit, you may still have avenues to protect your home. Again, this is something we encourage you to discuss with a lawyer.
Illegal units raise numerous legal and safety issues. Being aware of the status of your apartment is crucial to protecting yourself and your legal rights. If you have questions about the legality of your home or think you are living in an unsafe unit, contact us today to see how we can help.
Recovered on behalf of a group of 30 tenants living in an SRO in San Francisco who were living with horrendous conditions in their rent controlled apartments, including rodents, bedbugs, mold, water leaks and harassment.Read More
Recovered on behalf of three families living in a building in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood who were forced to live with substandard conditions for years as a result of their landlord’s negligence, including issues with lack of heat, lack of hot water and cockroach/rat infestations.Read More
Recovered on behalf of a couple living in a rent-controlled home in the outer Sunset neighborhood. Our clients were forced to vacate after the landlord served them with an Owner Move-In Eviction Notice. After the landlords failed to move into the property, our clients filed suit for wrongful eviction.Read More
Recovered on behalf of a San Francisco tenant in Russian Hill. Tenant was forced to vacate her illegal apartment in retaliation for reporting unlawful rent increases to the San Francisco Rent Board.Read More
Recovered for a single long-term tenant in San Francisco. Our client was forced to move out of his apartment as a result of extreme landlord harassment.Read More
Recovered on behalf of three long-term tenants in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood who were constructively evicted due to noise and nuisance conditions created by their downstairs neighbors, which the owner refused to address.Read More
Recovered on behalf of elderly, disabled tenant who was forced to move out of her rent-controlled San Francisco apartment of 50 years after landlord/owner failed to resolve numerous building code violations that remained outstanding for over a decade.Read More
Recovered on behalf of seven tenants living in a makeshift boarding house in East Palo Alto.Read More
Recovered on behalf of two former San Francisco tenants who were evicted via an Owner Move-In Eviction and owner failed to occupy the unit as her primary place of residence.Read More
Recovered on behalf of an elderly long-term tenant who was forced to vacate her long San Francisco apartment as a result of her landlord’s refusal to address longstanding defective conditions, including lack of heat, mold, rodent infestations, and defective plumbing. Read More
Recovered on behalf of a San Francisco tenant who was forced to vacate his home as a result of ongoing, disruptive construction and the owners’ refusal to provide him with alternative housing. Read More
Recovered on behalf of a San Francisco family that was constructively evicted from their home in the Richmond District as a result of unlawful rent increases, defective conditions and tenant harassment.Read More
Recovered on behalf of a tenant living in an illegal “in-law” unit. In this case, a new owner purchased the building and then demolished our client’s unit without permits while she was displaced for seismic retrofitting.Read More
Recovered on behalf of two long term San Francisco tenants who were fraudulently evicted from their home of over twenty years under the pretext of an owner move-in eviction.Read More
Recovered for tenant who was injured when their stairway railing collapsed at the tenant’s Mission District apartment building.Read More
Recovered in action for a group of tenants forced to vacate their San Francisco apartment house due to severe habitability defects including mold and water leaks.Read More
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For more information or to discuss your legal situation, call us today at (415) 649-6203 for a phone consultation or submit an inquiry below. Please note our firm can only assist tenants residing in San Francisco, Oakland & Berkeley.