Water in the walls: A housing horror story

Morgan Shingling knew she had a big problem on her hands when her apartment on the first floor of a two-story building started leaking from the ceiling the Saturday before classes started at SF State.

“It just started with a leak,” said Shingling a sophomore sociology major. “It was coming down through the light fixtures in our house. So the fluorescents filled (with water) and then slowly it just started spreading.”

In fear that the water in the wiring of the light fixtures and throughout the apartment would short and cause damage to the circuit breakers, Shingling called the fire department who in response told her that she and her roommates should leave the apartment immediately.

“They were going to have to strip the place down to the drywall to get all the mold out and mildew,” said Shingling.

What she and her roommates didn’t know was that this was the fourth time the roof of her apartment building had leaked and been repaired by unlicensed workers hired by their landlord, who denied any accountability for the damage.

“I think because students can come from all over California or all over the country, they aren’t necessarily familiar with their rights specifically in San Francisco, and they may or may not be in their own housing for the first time,” said San Francisco Rent Board Supervisor Jennifer Rakowski.

The San Francisco Rent Board fields calls from confused tenants every weekday and explains basic tenant’s rights. Damage to the rented unit can be delegated in a few ways, but Rakowski said there’s one basic question to answer before taking action.

“Anyone renting in San Francisco should know whether the unit they’re renting is subject to the rent control. Knowing whether you have a rent control unit versus a non-rent controlled unit is the key starting point,” said Rakowski. “Your rights and avenues flow from there.”

In the event of a flood, if the landlord doesn’t address the issue in a timely manner, the tenant can ask for a judgement in small claims court that reduces their rent for the time the tenant is living under those conditions, Rakowski said.

“I contacted the rent board and they were really helpful,” said Shingling’s roommate Amelia Shelton, a sophomore political science major at SF State. “They told me everything that I’m entitled to because he broke the lease for failing to provide a living situation until the time we agreed. ”

Shelton is compiling a list of costs to serve her landlord, including the damaged furniture, storage space where she and her roommates had to move their possessions, and the bill for the hotel she’s been staying for two weeks, amounting to around $2000. If her landlord disputes these costs, the case will be taken to small claims court, where the law favors the tenant.

As for the smaller complaints about pervasive mold in the building, which undoubtedly appeared after the first several times the roof leaked, there’s little more they can do than file a complaint for public record.

“I was a little disappointed,” said Shelton. “He can patch it up, but there’s nothing we can do about it. We could get the building condemned if we took it to court, but we’re just a bunch of college students.”

With limited resources, it’s unlikely that anything further than minor compensation will come out of this debacle for Shingling and Shelton.

“You want to believe that your landlord is going to do what they’re supposed to do,” said Shelton. “He has to sign the list of costs when he gets it and if he doesn’t, there will be legal action.”

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