I live in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the United States. This is a city where a $2,000 per month studio is considered a “good deal.”
About a year ago, I was living in a $3,200 one-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend (the only way I can afford this kind of rent is by having someone to split it with). We were living paycheck-to-paycheck, not saving anything, but justified it by telling ourselves that we’d only be young once, so we needed to experience city-living.
We still had a few months left on our 13-month lease when we came across a listing for a two-bedroom apartment in a more desirable neighborhood. Yes, we’d have a roommate, but our rent would decrease by almost $1,000 per month. And the best part: it was rent-controlled! Being a couple with a dog, I figured we had too much baggage and no one would want to live with us, but we applied for the apartment anyway.
If you know anything about the San Francisco housing market, you know it’s ridiculously competitive. I’ve had more trouble finding a place to live than finding a job, but by some miracle, we got the rent-controlled apartment. Everything was working out perfectly — until we remembered that we still had two months left at our current place.
No problem, we thought, we’ll just sublet it.
We were naïve and desperate, so we ended up subletting our old place to a phony hedge fund manager who made it known that he drove a nice car within the first five minutes of talking to me; he wore a Burberry scarf and pea coat when we met him. (Note to self: next time I meet a person who feels the need to flaunt wealth in such a tacky manner, be suspicious that he or she is sketchy and doesn’t actually have that much money.) He was good for the first rent payment, though, so we gave him the keys and let him move in.
Then, he convinced us that he wanted to stay for another year, so we talked to the landlord, who cooked up this shady scheme that required the three of us — me, my boyfriend, and the sketchy-in-retrospect-but-legit-at-the-time guy — to sign a new a one-year lease together. The landlord promised that my boyfriend and I would be dropped off the new lease as soon as our original lease term ended — just one more month at this point. Signing the lease renewal together effectively made the three of us “roommates.” One big happy family, right?
It was all downhill from that point.
Shortly after we signed the new lease, the landlord demanded an additional deposit. Then, our new “roommate” fell off the map, stopped answering our calls and texts, and wouldn’t pay rent. Because we were all jointly liable under the lease, the landlord came after me and my boyfriend for the rent and the additional deposit. Ultimately, the landlord ended up filing an eviction lawsuit against us even though we'd moved to the new place and hadn’t lived there for a while.
How can you file a lawsuit to evict people who don’t even live there anymore?
I did some research and learned that one of the requirements to file an eviction lawsuit is that the tenants are still in possession of the property. We had email evidence notifying the landlord that we had moved out and had even returned the apartment keys to them. But they still had the nerve to swear under penalty of perjury that we were still in possession of the property. Talk about shady business.
Meanwhile, the landlord accidentally signed a release statement saying that my boyfriend and I were released from the lease. They were withholding their signature on this document until they got the delinquent rent payment, but some unknowing employee accidentally signed it. (They use an electronic signature system, so the document was automatically emailed to us when the landlord’s employee clicked "sign.") We thought we could use this to our advantage to get us out of the eviction lawsuit scot-free. Unfortunately, we learned that the world and the justice system don’t work this way.
If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that the justice system is seriously broken. Even though lawyers advised us that we could probably use the accidentally-signed release document to win at trial, it wasn’t a guarantee; not to mention that we’d have to pay for attorney fees all the way through trial.
Our best bet would be to settle with the landlord. So, even though we had all the evidence to probably win at trial, we ended up settling. In total, the lawyers and the settlement cost us $4100.
My boyfriend and I are lucky – we have stable jobs, and although it was painful, we had some savings from before we moved to San Francisco to pay for all of this. But it just got me thinking about how many people there are in similar situations who have children and families to support, or who simply don’t have the cash. Before we decided to hire an eviction lawyer, I visited an eviction defense clinic for low-income tenants facing eviction. I wondered how many of the tenants there, many of whom were uneducated and spoke very little English, were being taken advantage of by their landlords. How many of them were being evicted illegally? How many of them were on the brink of homelessness?
To put it simply, the world sucks sometimes, and the wealthy usually win. This experience definitely left me jaded and skeptical of landlords and corporations, but it also inspired me to be kinder to others. You never know what kind of shit someone is going through.
There wasn’t much we could do get our money back. We considered suing our “roommate” in small claims court, but even if we won, we probably wouldn’t be able to collect any money. My boyfriend is able to let go of things pretty easily, but I tend to hold a grudge. I ended up writing a Yelp review and am pleased to report that it has received 27 "useful" votes to date. In my review, I encourage people to direct message me so I can help them find another place to live — literally anywhere else. So far, two people have messaged me and I think (hope) that I successfully talked them out of signing a lease there.
I’ll never get my $4100 back, but maybe being able to share my experience and prevent it from happening to others is more valuable than money.