Declaration Triggers State Laws to Protect S.F. Tenants From Utility Shutoffs

Termination of Gas, Electricity Services Due to Owner Nonpayment Poses ‘Significant Threat’ to Public Health and Safety, City Finds

SAN FRANCISCO (Feb. 25, 2009) — A declaration signed by Department of Building Inspection Director Vivian L. Day and City Attorney Dennis Herrera triggers provisions of state law that will protect tenants of master metered multiunit buildings in San Francisco from losing gas, heat and electricity services if their landlords stop paying their utility bills. The 2-page declaration issued today concludes that “the termination of private utilities at a master metered building will be automatically deemed to cause a significant threat to the health or safety of the residential occupants or the public,” and establishes that no such utilities be terminated to occupied master metered multiunit residential buildings in San Francisco because of the landlord’s failure to pay. The declaration will remain in effect through Dec. 31, 2010.

“Given the number of reports of utility shutoffs and the uncertainty in our economy, this declaration is a prudent and necessary step that protects not only tenants, but all San Francisco residents,” said City Attorney Herrera. “The state laws triggered by today’s action were enacted to protect public health and safety in circumstances exactly such as these. DBI Director Vivian Day and her staff deserve credit for their hard work to address these concerns proactively, and I appreciate, too, the efforts of community groups like the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco to protect tenants during these difficult economic times.”

“We know from experience,” said DBI Director Day, “that interruption of utility services can cause residents to try to make due with illegal generators and unauthorized heating devices, and that these pose significant health and safety risks to themselves and their neighbors. This declaration is an important step to eliminate such risks in the midst of the current foreclosure crisis. I am grateful to City Attorney Dennis Herrera for his leadership, the work of his office, and the pro-active efforts by community groups, to help the Department of Building Inspection protect the interests of all San Franciscans.”

While today’s declaration is not limited to residential buildings facing foreclosure, reported cases of utility shutoffs affecting tenants due to non-payment by landlords have spiked dramatically during the recent housing foreclosure crisis. Findings cited in the City’s declaration note that “foreclosures have increased by as much as 450% over the past year” in some San Francisco neighborhoods, and one tenant advocacy organization — the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco — is “reporting that they are seeing an average of one case per day” of utility shutoffs to tenants through no fault of their own.

Today’s declaration follows a public memorandum Herrera issued on Jan. 16 outlining the rights of San Francisco tenants under state and local law to remain in their rental units and continue to receive utility service when residential property owners face foreclosure by creditors or delinquency on utility bills. The 11-page memo issued to DBI Director Day, SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington and Director of Public Health Dr. Mitch Katz identified legal provisions in California law that compel such privately-owned utilities as PG&E to continue gas and electric service when a public health or building officer certifies it is necessary to protect life, health or safety.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which operates the City’s publicly-owned water and wastewater utilities, has a standing policy against shutting off utility services to its customers who are tenants for non-payment by their landlord, and rather pursues collections by placing liens on delinquent landlord’s building. SFPUC policy additionally affords tenants or their representatives the option of establishing a new account for service, directly with the PUC, without being responsible for the past delinquencies of their landlord.