I-TEAM investigates tenant landlord dispute

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Thursday, May 14, 2015
I-TEAM investigates tenant landlord dispute
The I-Team looks at a case study about the other side of the rent crisis in San Francisco and how landlords are getting stuck in bad positions.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A San Francisco firefighter has been trying for two years to move his mother-in-law into a building he owns where he lives, but he can't get a tenant to leave. This is a case study about the other side of the rent crisis, and this battle has become very nasty.

There are many stories about landlords taking advantage of tenants and jacking up their rent. But consider what this firefighter's lawyer says: that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of tenants, and small property owners are having a tough time controlling their own buildings.

For 20 years, Stan Lee has put his life on the line as a San Francisco firefighter. He received a commendation for rescuing a woman trapped under a Muni light rail car in 2004, and he injured his back falling from a ladder during an inferno four years ago. He has also seen some intense action at his own home: a tenant nearly clipping him with a car and yelling racial slurs through the front door. Security footage shows tenant Daniel Whittaker swearing "f--- you, idiot, stupid Chinese s---" and flipping off the camera.

Lee tells the I-TEAM that he, his wife and three young children feel like prisoners in their own home.

"If we were to come home and my tenant's leaving, my kids will not venture out of the garage unless I'm escorting them," Lee says. "That's how afraid they are of him."

This all began in 1999, when Lee purchased an Inner Sunset split level, with a tenant in a rent-controlled unit on the first floor.

"My name is Daniel Whittaker, I've lived in the city since 1987," said Whittaker at a tenant rights rally last fall. Whittaker declined the I-TEAM's request for an interview, but he has been very public about his battle with Stan Lee. "I'm a web developer, I make pretty good money," said Whittaker at the rally. "In any other city, I could probably own a house and here in San Francisco right now, if I had to be relocated, I honestly don't know what I'm going to do."

YouTube: My Eviction Story: Daniel Whittaker 6 Oct 2014

Stan Lee says at first, Whittaker paid his rent on time. But as the years passed, some of Whittaker's checks started to bounce.

"Looking back now, he was late about 30 percent of the time," says Lee.

Lee finally sued Whittaker for back rent. The firefighter says his own credit took a hit, as he tried to cover all the expenses with the rent coming sporadically. So, he finally made a decision to get out of the rental business, and move his mother-in-law into the downstairs unit. Lee says, "It's just not worth it anymore, being landlords in San Francisco. We just want to live peacefully in our building."

Whittaker refused to move. Lee then tried an Ellis Act Eviction; the law that allows property owners to get out of the rental business. But Lee's former attorney left out one clause about a tenant's abandoned property. Whittaker won the case with free legal help from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

"I've fought them, and fought them hard, and I won pretty much every battle," said Whittaker at that tenant rights rally.

Now, Lee's new attorney is trying a different tactic allowed under the city code: a relative move-in. Andrew Zacks tells the I-Team that the Lee case shows the pendulum has swung too far, protecting tenants against landlords. "Our current mayor and the current folks that are in charge right now have really, really lost sight of the rights of property owners," says Zacks.

"I'm sorry to hear if someone has felt that they have maybe an inordinate amount of steps to go through, but we emphasize fairness," Mayor Ed Lee tells the I-TEAM. "There are rights to be protected by both landlords and tenants, and I'm hoping that if we can look into it to make sure that they're getting the support and services that they have. People have rights in the city."

Mayor Lee adds that the answer is more affordable housing to give tenants like Daniel Whittaker options. In the meantime, we're left with angry, and sometimes inaccurate, rhetoric.

"My landlords got bitten by the greed bug," said Whittaker. "They did everything they possibly could; they made my life hell because they stand to reap millions off this building."

Zillow actually places the property value at $1.6 million. Stan Lee tells the I-Team he has no plans to sell, and that he will actually be losing money without Whittaker's rent coming in. But that's okay, it's all about family.

"There's another financial burden here because my mother-in-law, I'm going to be cooking for her, helping her do her laundry here, just like she was part of the family household, which she is."

After the I-TEAM's inquiries into the case, Lee has gotten word they may be close to a settlement. The top attorneys at Tenderloin Housing Clinic declined to be interviewed for this story. They are usually available to appear on ABC7, but not in this case.

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