San Francisco Bernal Heights tenant facing 400 percent rent increase

SAN FRANCISCO -- Debra Follingstad of San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood is suddenly scheduled for a 400-percent rent increase. Come May 5th, her current rent of $2,145 per month will be going up to $8,900 a month.

Tenant advocates say they can't remember a rent increase this high.

Follingstad has been so depressed she began packing her belongings this weekend in preparation of moving out. She has lived in the rent-controlled, 2-bedroom apartment for the past 10 years, but was served legal papers regarding the nearly $7,000 rent increase on March 2.

"There are no chances of coming up with that money. I can't even put my head around it," Follingstad said.

On top of the rent hike, her security deposit is scheduled to increase to $12,500.

In a desperate move, Follingstad put out a plea on Facebook for a new place to live. The full-time acupuncturist also posted the notice from her landlord's attorney about the increase. It's gone viral and has been shared on Facebook, retweeted, and thoroughly discussed on Reddit.

Follingstad says until very recently a tenant was living downstairs in an in-law apartment.

KGO-TV, the ABC station in San Francisco, contacted the San Francisco Rent Board, which also heard about Follingstad's situation on social media. They said if it's true that the downstairs was also rented out, then the home would fall under city rent control laws.

However, Follingstad's landlord claims the rent increase is legal because the downstairs unit was converted into a storage space, technically turning it into a single-family dwelling.

The San Francisco Rent Board urged Follingstad to file a complaint with them and request a hearing.

VIDEO: Legality of Bernal Heights resident's staggering rent increase questioned

Tenant rights groups say this problem is all too common.

"For a landlord to increase rents by 400 percent, assuming they can legally, is just outrageous," said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together.

If anything, Follingstad wants her story to help others.

"I just hope that these loopholes can get closed and be exposed so that other people don't lose their homes," said Follingstad.

The loophole she's referring to is when landlords take a multi-unit complex, such as hers, and turn it into a single-family home where rent prices can be as high as a landlord wants.

The Tobener Law Center recently won a lawsuit against the Lama family, which owns the house where Follingstad lives. That case also involved a huge rent hike.

"This is an area where the landlord can and often times get away with doing this kind of activity. It's only in the most blatant examples where it draws attention and leads to a lawsuit," said Luke Vanderdrift, a senior associate at the Tobener Law Center.

The law center is now in talks with Follingstad.

Follingstad was pleased to hear about all of her rights and all the support she's been getting.

"I'm very, very, very overwhelmed and so thankful for the community support that I was given," Follingstad said.

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