Housing Advocacy Clinic Case Advances to the Level of the Court of Appeals

The Housing Advocacy Clinic (HAC) at JFKU is currently embroiled in a longstanding case to help yet another vulnerable resident remain in his longtime San Francisco home. What’s unique and exciting about this case is not only how long it has gone on, but how far it has progressed into the court system. So far the HAC won their argument at the initial rent board hearing, then again before the rent board commission, and, most recently, before the San Francisco Superior Court. Next, the case will be brought before the Court of Appeals, a level of the state judicial system infrequently achieved by a housing case. The escalation of this case into the courts has put HAC in a position to make a lasting influence in the realm of San Francisco housing rulings. It has also made for an extremely valuable learning experience for HAC students.

The case involves a 31-year-old schoolteacher who has lived in his current house since he was born in 1987. The man’s father, the original tenant, moved into the house in 1977. Up until recently, the two had been living in the house together, but then the father got married and decided to move out. Because the father was the original tenant of the house, his moving out spelled bad news for the son, who, according to the stipulations of the 1995 Costa Hawkins Act, would no longer be protected under rent control. Indeed, once the father moved out, the landlord sought to raise the rent by more than 7 times the current rate.

This sort of situation is common at this moment in the Bay Area. Although this particular case involves the original tenant getting married and moving out, the typical scenario involves the original tenant passing away. When this happens, the bereaved and grieving family members immediately become vulnerable to landlords eager to take advantage of the lapse in rent control.

In the context of this case and others like it, the HAC has been able to do something rather significant. They have identified that subtenants such as their current client, who were born or moved into the home before the 1995 passage of Costa Hawkins, should not be subject to the limitations that Costa Hawkins has imposed on rent control. In doing so the HAC has paved the way toward protecting at least this subset of vulnerable renters from losing their home when a family member passes away.

“There is a cohort that is now going to be protected,” says Ora Prochovnick, professor in the College of Law, JD Program at JFKU and Director of the Housing Advocacy Clinic, “because this case will come to stand as a model. First the rent board and now the courts are clearly accepting that this group is protected under the law.”

Not only has this case made an important impact in the context of the Bay Area housing crisis, it has also offered invaluable experience to the law students working with the HAC. The students have had the opportunity to go beyond their classroom-based understanding of civil procedure as a list of complex rules to seeing how these rules actually play out. Additionally, as Prochovnick points out, students have come to see firsthand that while the oral argument is important, it’s the research and writing that really make a difference. “We won because of the research and writing,” she says. Finally, Prochovnick concludes, the students were also able to experience the real life implications of their work. “They’ve met this family and have seen how this work affects this family. Whatever area of law they go into they’re seeing how this work has impact.”