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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?