Illegal Units

An illegal unit is a residential dwelling units that lack a “certificate of final completion and occupancy.” For a unit to be approved for residential use it must have a certificate of occupancy, which is issued by the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection.

Types of illegal units include “in-law”units or “mother-in-law” apartments. These are typically found on the ground floor level of a single-family home.  However, commercial store fronts, and warehouses which have been converted to, or are being used as, residences, are often illegal.

Risks of Living in Illegal Units

If the City of San Francisco has not approved the unit for residential use then there is no guarantee it meets building code requirements. If it doesn’t meet building code requirements it may be unsafe to live there. Many illegal units lack sufficient safety provisions, including fire proofing, sufficient exits, or stable electrical systems. In other words your apartment doesn’t have to be noticeably dangerous to be unsafe.

Additionally, the status of your apartment can impact your ability to stay in your home long-term.  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 they will likely issue a Notice of Violation and order your landlord to either legalize or demolish the unit. This can start a domino effect that could put your tenancy at risk so it is important to be aware of the risks and benefits of contacting a city building or health inspector before doing so.

Tenants in these units are often also at greater risk of being bought out, particularly where a building is up for sale or an owner wishes to sell the property in the near future.

Demolition of Illegal Units in San Francisco is Disfavored

Demolition is one of the sixteen “just causes” for eviction under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. However, due to the lack of available housing stock in the city, and landlords abusing this provision, the City has changed its tune on demolition evictions.  To undertake a demolition eviction requires a landlord to have already obtained permits to demolish the unit from the Building Department. Those permits are now very difficult to get. City policy is to encourage landlords to legalize illegal units, not demolish them. 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. If you find yourself in this situation contact us immediately to discuss your options.

Tenants May Have Grounds for a Lawsuit

Landlords in California are prohibited from renting out illegal units or collecting rent. For that reason alone tenants living in these units (with the landlord’s consent and knowledge) may have grounds for damages.

Our office does not bring lawsuits against landlords where the only wrongdoing is renting out an illegal unit. However, often there are other other problems with these units such as harassment or poor living conditions that a landlord refuses to fix. In those circumstances the legality of the unit can become an additional claim.

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