California laws don't apply inside San Francisco's Presidio

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Living with Uncle Sam as your landlord -- forget about tenant rights.

San Francisco is known for strong laws protecting tenants, but in the middle of this progressive city lies an island with its own rules -- and California laws don't apply.

"It was a beautiful place,'' said former San Francisco resident Diana Lum. She and her husband Chris were living in this oasis, in former military housing, on the former Presidio Army Base, now a national park overlooking the Golden Gate.

"It didn't have a lot of high end features,'' Chris Lum said. "The rooms were small and there's not too many amenities. But it was about the location. You could hear the ocean from our back porch."

The Presidio is a world unto itself, with a storied military history, stunning ocean views, wildlife running free, and soft trails carved into the forested landscape, all separated from the rest of the city by a long brick wall and three iron gates.

"You cross the street into the Presidio and you're in a completely different world, even if you think you're still in San Francisco,'' tenant rights attorney Ora Prochovnick said.

It's because, once you pass those iron gates, all state and local laws vanish in your wake.

"You are controlled by the federal government and the state and city have no power,'' Prochovnick said.

There are no rent controls, evictions controls - even city building codes don't apply here.

The Lums found this out the hard way.

"We had about $2,500 on the line here,'' Chris Lum said.

The couple was moving out of the Presidio and needed their security deposit back.

"I just assumed we'd fall under California law,'' Chris Lum said.

State law requires landlords to refund security deposits within 21 days or face big penalties. However, the Presidio housing office shrugged that off.

"They said hold on, we don't fall under that jurisdiction, you'll just have to hold on for your money."

Their lease says security deposits will be refunded "within a period provided by applicable law." But there *is* no applicable law. So no one could say when they might get their money back.

"They could've hung onto our money forever really."

But what about a small claims suit?

"They'd literally have to make a federal case out of it,'' Prochovnick said.

The lease requires tenants to take any disputes to federal court and waive the right to claim inconvenience. In fact, all disputes on the Presidio are literally federal cases.

"if you get a parking ticket in the Presidio, you have to go to federal court," to contest it, Chris Lum said with a laugh. He knows. He's been fighting tickets. "You go see a magistrate and get prosecuted by the United States of America."

When they were told state protections were meaningless in the Presidio, the Lums began to read their lease more carefully. It's a hefty 27 pages long and loaded with rules, ranging from no pounding nails into the walls to no pets without written permission, to no lighting a barbecue without permission either. It's full of disclosures including a warning that buildings may not comply with seismic codes the rest of the city enforces and isn't required to follow city building codes.

Chris and Diana were left to wonder if they would ever get their security deposit back. The couple was expecting their first child, moving to a new home in the East Bay, and needed that money.

They contacted 7 On Your Side. We contacted the Presidio Trust, which runs the Presidio housing and it said: "Our goal is to return security deposits within 30 days but refunds are processed through the U.S. Treasury and we don't control when the check is issued."

Three months later, the Treasury Department finally did refunded their deposit. The Lums, relieved, wanted us to tell their story.

"People should be aware that the Presidio has its own rules,'' Chris Lum said. "You can try to say but the law out there says we get our money back, but they don't have to listen."

Yes, the Presidio may be in San Francisco, but also, it isn't.
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