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As San Francisco’s largest landlord falters, tenants are banding together and winning

A woman with a white head wrap and black top looks pensively off to the side in a dimly lit corridor with papers on the wall.
Ingrid Giron stands next to the broken elevator sign at her Tenderloin apartment. Her building's purchase by a new corporate owner has given renters new leverage in negotiations about back rent and living conditions. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Ingrid Giron found out she had a new landlord via a thin letter in her mailbox.

“It’s always a quick hello before jumping right into the new way of paying rent,” said Giron, a veterinary technician who has lived in her rent-controlled studio apartment in the Tenderloin for more than a decade.  

Her building’s longtime owner, Veritas Investments, was dismantling its 6,500-unit portfolio of San Francisco apartments. A new ownership group—made up of Ballast Investments and Brookfield Properties—stepped in to fill the void with private equity money, leapfrogging Veritas to become the city’s largest landlord in the process.

Giron, a mother of three, has experienced this type of turnover before, but perhaps the biggest difference this time is her participation in a new era of tenant power, where apartment dwellers are adopting tactics more associated with labor unions and finding themselves in a position of strength. 

With the tacit support of city leaders in San Francisco, these groups are starting to win concessions from the new owners.

“When you bring up concerns by yourself, it’s easy for a landlord to drag things out,” Giron said. “But chances are, there are people out there in the same position you are.” 

A person stands near overflowing trash bins in a dimly lit garage.
Ingrid Giron walks past the shared garbage and recycling bins overflowing with refuse at her building now owned by Ballast and Brookfield. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Towards the end of Veritas’ ownership of Giron’s 68-unit building at 434 Leavenworth St. in 2023, residents formed a tenants association. Fed up with issues like trash buildup and hazardous mold, the neighbors gathered over 50 signatures, above the simple majority necessary to be legally recognized. 

With a united front, they spent the next year filing complaints and lawsuits against Veritas for what they said were illegal rent hikes and code violations. Several residents, including Giron, went on an ongoing rent strike in October. It’s been nearly six months since they’ve paid rent.  

Two months later, their building was sold to Ballast and Brookfield, raising fears that residents would have to start again at square one. 

But in their one meeting with property managers so far, Giron said the new owners have been more willing negotiators. The two parties have already agreed that residents should be paid back for at least one year’s worth of improper rent hikes, according to Giron and other association members. 

The payout is contingent on the association completing the painstaking work of going door-by-door again and collecting records of back rents from residents, many of whom do not speak English. 

Ballast Investments and Brookfield Properties did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s not fair, but the burden is on us [tenants] to keep all of our receipts,” Giron said, adding the association members will keep withholding their rent until they are paid and the building’s myriad problems are fixed.

Nearly three months after the sale closed, there’s still only one recycle bin in the building—a situation tenants say has led to a serious rat infestation. An elevator also remains out of order, leaving many of Giron’s senior neighbors to brave the stairs or remain confined in their units at the five-story building. 

“It’s easy to put on a good face in the beginning when [the new landlord] is replacing such a bad one,” Giron said. “Anyone can promise you your dreams, but who is willing to actually make it happen?” 

Veritas said trash buildup at 434 Leavenworth was due to waste management company Recology refusing to pick up bins from the building due to the presence of an encampment at the front of the building.

Trash bins that were placed on the curb for pick-up were often stolen and took weeks to replace, according to the company.

"We’re glad to do our part, but the challenges the city faces, including homelessness, criminality, and sanitation are beyond one housing provider’s ability to fix," a Veritas spokesperson said.

‘We’re paying for them to be up to code’

While rent strikes are not a novel concept, San Francisco has some of the nation’s strongest renter protection laws, making organizing more conducive, said James Huynh, a spokesperson for the Regional Tenant Organization Network, a loose coalition of different tenants' rights groups.

Adding to their leverage is a sympathetic city bureaucracy that has increasingly sided on behalf of renters.  

In 2022, the Board of Supervisors and Mayor London Breed passed the “Union-At-Home Ordinance,” which expanded protections for tenants to conduct organizing activities within their buildings and required landlords to bargain with those units.

The City Attorney's Office has also recently signaled it is willing to side with tenants in disputes. In October, San Francisco sued three separate landlords—individuals Jeff Appenrodt, Shailendra Devdhara and Kamlesh Patel—that operated single-room-occupancy residential hotels in and around Chinatown for unsafe living conditions. 

“That's why at this point, we feel that we need to initiate litigation,” City Attorney David Chiu said at the time. “We will sue them all together to make sure that there is collective liability.”

Arnel Valle considers himself lucky to have his 410-square-foot apartment in a building that straddles the border of the Tenderloin and Nob Hill, which he shares with his two cats, Norman Maine and Vicki Lester.

A man stands in a kitchen with utensils and jars, appearing to be in a conversation.
Arnel Valle said learning that he and his neighbors all had their kitchen sinks backed up at the same time inspired their decision to form a tenants association and launch a rent strike. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The fitness instructor turned senior care worker has lived in his 709 Geary St. building since 2010 and has seen Veritas come and go before Ballast and Brookfield took over at the start of the year. 

He compared the experience to being slowly exposed to poisonous gas over time. In his decade-plus living in the building, Valle said there were repeated plumbing and power issues on top of an elevator that routinely broke down. Just getting repair work started or unjust utility bill hikes reversed was a major hurdle, Valle said.

Valle and his neighbors formed their association last year after they realized their kitchen sinks were all backed up because of a plumbing issue. Like Giron’s building down the street, members of his group are withholding rent until the new owners meet their demands. 

So far, it’s working. Since the group’s first negotiation with Ballast and Brookfield, more repair workers have been arriving at the building, Valle said. On a visit last week, the elevator was also up and running again after it had been broken in the months before Veritas gave up the building. 

“I’ve always been the type of person who will try to fix things on my own before calling management,” Valle said. “I had to remind myself that we’re paying for them to be up to code.”

While the firm was unable to immediately respond to many of the allegations given to the Standard, it has responded in other press reports about similar claims.

Speaking to the New York Times, a spokesperson said many buildings in the Veritas portfolio are more than a century old and the company has worked hard to address the concerns of tenants, including broken elevators, spending millions of dollars on improvements. 

When recently asked about delayed response times, a spokesperson told KTVU that Veritas “has one of, if not the largest maintenance teams in the city, and responds to all maintenance issues that residents report to us. The vast majority of service issues are handled within days. Some can take longer, depending on the circumstances, during which time we communicate the issues and actions to residents and work to minimize the inconvenience."

Mismatched motivations

A few months before Ballast and Brookfield dethroned Veritas as the city’s top landlord, a smaller subset of Veritas’ portfolio—about 300 units across 21 buildings—was snapped up by real estate firm Prado Group in a similar manner. 

One of those properties was a 17-unit building at 320-324 14th St. in the Mission District. Upon closing that deal, the tenant association of those apartments, led by 17-year resident Matthew Souzis, sent a letter to Prado Group requesting they sell the homes to a public trust or nonprofit housing organization as soon as possible. 

Souzis' argument rested on investor returns and motivation to fix a long-languishing property being in direct opposition.

For the decade, Veritas owned the property, the buildings had become a poster child for Department of Building Inspection violations, including an earthquake safety warning that remained posted on the front gate during a recent visit by The Standard. 

Veritas said it completed a soft story retrofit of the building in August and the city performed an inspection the same month. A spokesperson said the project was delayed due to the need to get access from the neighboring property and by a resident who refused to grant access to inspectors,

A man stands by a scaffolding in a sunlit alley, wearing a black shirt and pink scarf.
Matthew Souza stands outside his building in San Francisco's Mission District, where construction and scaffolding have surrounded the property for months. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Eight of the building’s 15 association members have been withholding rent until all building violations are cleared and residents are refunded for rent increases they paid during that time, Souzis said. 

Prado Group did not respond to requests for comment. The two sides are meeting about the demands later this month. 

“The question will be do they want us to call more city inspectors or do they truly want to work together with us?” Souzis said. 

As for the wounded Veritas, the company is by no means dead yet. Last month at the same time the company reportedly put another 762 rent-controlled units in San Francisco up for sale, it also plunked down $18 million to buy a pair of apartment buildings in Seattle

"Current market conditions have affected everyone but we are not only staying focused on San Francisco and the West Coast, but are also pursuing opportunities in these markets at a time that many are calling a bottom of the cycle,” a Veritas spokesperson said. 

This story has been updated to include additional responses by Veritas Investments to the tenants' claims.