Former Tenant Sues Over Eye-Popping Rent Increase at 355 Bocana


The dust has settled in the messy matter of 355 Bocana, the house where renter Deb Follingstad was hit with a shocking 315% rent increase by property owner and lifelong Bernal resident Nadia Lama last March. Since then, Neighbor Nadia has moved into the house, and Neighbor Deb has been stringing together temporary arrangements while she looks for a more stable place to live.

Yet the incident still stings, apparently, and last week Neighbor Deb filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit. Lamar Anderson from San Francisco Magazine broke the story:

The complaint, filed on August 18 in San Francisco Superior Court, characterizes the rent increase as an effective eviction and a violation of the city’s Rent Ordinance. According to the suit, which also names Lama’s sisters, ontime property managers Claudia and Antoinette Lama, Nadia Lama moved into the unit after Follingstad left. Instead of going through the no-fault eviciton procedure allowed under the Rent Ordinance for owner move-ins, the suit alleges, Lama attempted to go around the law by forcing Follingstad out with a drastic rent increase. In a normal no-fault eviction, Follingstad would have been entitled to a relocation payment of $9,258.67, according to the suit. Instead, she got no relocation money, and Lama even kept her $1,500 security deposit, Follingstad says.

Her attorney, Joseph Tobener, says, “I think it’s unfortunate that it’s come to this.” When Nadia Lama gave notice of the rent increase, he says, “We sent a letter saying, Let’s resolve this. This client’s willing to work with you.”

Follingstad’s story, which swept local media last spring and provoked neighborhood backlash against the Lama family, gave San Franciscans a crash course in the intricacies of tenant law. Through a loophole in the law, Follingstad’s sudden $6,755 rent hike appeared to be legal. In San Francisco, rent control covers most rentals with a certificate of occupancy predating June 1979, if they are in multiunit buildings. Follingstad lived in a two-unit building and was covered by rent control. But the lower-level unit was illegal, which made it easy to demolish—that is, remove the plumbing that made it a habitable dwelling unit—without permission from the Planning Department. When Lama pulled the toilet out of the lower-level unit, in February, it became de-facto “storage space” for Follingstad’s apartment, and voila, she was suddenly living in a single-family home, and no longer protected by rent control. (Lama had only taken over the property in January, after resolving a legal dispute with her sisters, Claudia Lama and Antoinette Lama, who had been acting as landlords ever since the original landlord, their father Chuck Lama, died in 2012.)

This is a complicated, two-sided tale, so it’s time well-spent to read the whole thing.

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

27 thoughts on “Former Tenant Sues Over Eye-Popping Rent Increase at 355 Bocana

  1. Is there a publicly available “Bad Tenants List” similar to the Bad Landlords list published by the Tenants Union? Owners have to protect themselves from tenants like Deb Follingstad.

    • What behavior did Deb exhibit that would put her on a ‘bad tenant list?’ It’s really obvious this is a deceptive slumlord who has used this loophole multiple times in the past…but maybe I’ve missed something when it comes to Deb’s background

      • How does making the house “to code” via removing an illegal unit make it a loophole? Yes, it’s obvious Lama wanted to evict Follingstad. Does that make her a slumlord? It certainly does not. Only in SF do renters feel entitled to some kind of money when landlords want their property back for their own personal use. Nothing illegal happened. “Loophole” schmoophole. Suck it up and move on – you are a RENTER.

      • @Rubix, you didn’t answer the question. What make’s Deb someone worthy of being on a “bad tenants” list?

        Btw, a home renovation isn’t “to code” if you don’t pull permits. Then it’s just an illegal renovation. Btw, Curbed wrote an interesting history of this situation. In that article they talk about a previous lawsuit against the family for a strikingly similar eviction, as well as the confirmation that the renovation of the property was not permitted.

      • @bether, Follingstad should be on a “bad tenants” list because she profited off of something that is not hers and subjected the actual owner of the property to liability by allowing others to inhabit it. (i.e imagine allowing someone to borrow your car and having that person let someone else borrow it, and not only profiting from that, but also running the risk of that person getting into a car accident?)

        Your argument about the property not being to code doesn’t make sense. It wasn’t “to code” with an illegal in-law. It’s now “to code” without said illegal in-law removed. The means to which she arrived at the latter doesn’t make it less “to code”. Besides, that’s for the city to fine her if she didn’t pull permits.

      • Curbed wrote about it, and Curbed’s writing was paraphrasing the opinion of a tenants rights attorney. I don’t think you can say something isn’t “to code” or isn’t “to code” based upon what is known here. We’re told the landlord pulled out plumbing in an unwarranted space. Why can’t the landlord do that? That’s the point. If it gets proven that the landlord wasn’t allowed to do that, then fine. Good argument. If it gets proven that the city knew nothing about said plumbing, so therefore knows nothing about what the landlord did or didn’t do, other than hearsay, then bad argument. But Curbed saying something twice is nothing I’d rate. Curbed gets a lot of things wrong and isn’t real journalism, not by a country mile.

      • Bether:

        This is why this isn’t a typical “innocent renter vs. evil absentee slumlord” situation:

        1) The landlord wasn’t trying to get rid of the tenant in order to rent it out at a higher rate. If she were pulling that kind of move, yes, that’s kinda greedy and covered by rules. However, the owner really, truly actually WANTED TO LIVE IN HER OWN BUILDING. I hope that if you step back and think about it, you’d agree that there should be absolutely no impediment to an owner actually needing, or even just wanting, to live in her own building. She shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege, nor defend herself. We HAVE to look at cases on their own merits.

        2) At first, I felt bad for Follingstad, not because she was being treated unfairly–which she wasn’t–but simply because she was being displaced, which any reasonable person would agree is painful.

        Then I found out about her Air BnB-ing part of her rented home. Even if she was allowed by her lease to sublet portions of the house (probably not?), and even if an accident by a guest on the property had zero chance of making the owner a target of a lawsuit (yeah, right), and even if Ms. F reported the income on her tax returns, and even if Ms. F checked with her neighbors, and even if she was allowed to earn profits (business) at this address by permit… do you get my point here? It doesn’t seem like she will be seen as a saintly hero should this lawsuit ever land in court… Not judging; just being realistic.

        Which brings me to her lawsuit. Despite all the above issues, despite the fact that the owner did EXACTLY WHAT THE CITY WOULD REQUIRE upon discovering an illegal unit–REMOVE IT (possible fines aren’t Follingstad’s concern), despite the fact that Follingstad knows that the owner is occupying her own building, despite the fact that the owner was within her rights to raise the rent to remove a tenant without having to either pay relocation costs (which AREN’T means-tested) or pay the expense of a contested eviction… Despite all that, Follingstad decided to bring in lawyers. They will make sure that as much of the owner’s money as possible goes to themselves, regardless of the fact that Follingstad probably “earned” enough Air BnB money to equal any settlement she is hoping to get, and that she has no chance of being returned to the house.

        So whether it is motivated by greed or vengeance, the suit is unfair.

        Bad tenant.

  2. How is it two sided? Because the tenant was illegally using Air BnB at one point? Rubbish! This is a dirty landlord, and as a landlord who does their best to follow the rules, I’m appalled.

  3. Here we go again! You should post a picture of the house now. It’s been painted and doesn’t look so slummy.

  4. It seems like the city has some culpability here because the city accepted the illegal unit as legal. The city is well aware of in-law units and illegal units, so aware that they have an actual count of the number of such units. Thus, the city has accepted the units as de facto living units. It is disingenuous for the city to allow the landlord to demolish the apartment.

    • Yeah, it does seem like this kind of legal acrobatics is inevitable when you have strict laws about housing quality – ostensibly to protect tenants from substandard housing – but then selectively overlooking them when it’s inconvenient. Seems like the laws were never written with the premise that many landlords might actually _want_ a unit to be forcibly evacuated.

  5. It’s an illegal eviction because the landlord didn’t follow the proper channels to evict the tenant, for whatever reason. Raising the rent an obscene amount in order to get someone to leave is not a proper eviction. She should have just done an owner move in eviction, gave her the $5500 and been done with it. Who knows how much all of this is costing now.

    • Yeah, that’s probably the best argument. But don’t forget that the landlord herself was about to be liable for a massive rent increase that her own sisters were slapping on her.

      • Well she could have kept the rental income of the illegal unit to help her if it were not for this nefarious

        The estate also left her money to move into this place (to pay for lawyers, etc). Still don’t get why they didn’t go the OMI route but maybe there are details being left out here.

    • Do you have $5,500 to just give someone?

      Even though you acted legally? Even though you just want to live in your own home?

      Also, all current costs are due to Follingstad and her lawyer.

      • Actually according to the article the father left her something like $12,000 to evict the tenant. Like I said, this is probably costing a lot more. An OMI would have left no recourse for the tenant to sue also so it would have been a lot less headache.

        For folks upset about the tenant using Airbnb, the landlord supposedly knew about it and allowed it so it’s really neither here nor there.

        Regarding rules for OMI, the main one is that you have to live in the house for at least 5 years. If you rent within 5 years, it must be on the rent you charged to the previous tenant. Yes, this is annoying but seeing as how the house is paid for and no doubt the property tax is minimal, that hardly seems to be cumbersome. Landlord just wants to have her cake and eat it too but we have these laws for a reason.

  6. The owner here was just not smart. Two choices:
    A. Raise the rent to a high but justifiable rate — say $6750, which the landlord was entitled to do. Chances are, the tenant will leave.
    B. OMI and pay $5500

    Raise the rent to $8,900? It makes it look like a constructive eviction. So you open yourself up to a lawsuit. That was a pretty dump option.

    • Honest question: why does raising the rent above a certain amount open the owner to a lawsuit? She actually does want to occupy her house. She is allowed to raise the rent to whatever she wants. She didn’t try eviction and lose, then search for another method.

      In other words: this lawsuit seems morally wrong, but also legally indefensible.

      • Completely agree. What’s Follingstad going to say? “She didn’t have the right to raise my rent”… Ummm, no. Single-family homes do not fall under the Rent Control Ordinance. It wasn’t Nadia Lama’s fault that there was an illegal in-law in the house. She should be praised for removing the illegal in-law and wanting to occupy her own property, and providing stability to the neighborhood. Rather than being villainized as a “slumlord” looking to displace the tenant that was obviously reaping benefits from thinking she was protected by rent control.

      • Intent matters in the eyes of the law. If your intent is to evict and you do that by raising the rent to $100,000 per month, a court is going to find that you raised the rent with the intention of evicting — you knew you were never going to collect $100,000 per month. And you can be sued for wrongful eviction.

        The actual number where it goes from a rent increase to a constructive eviction is a gray area. But I think $8,900 is a pretty dark shade of gray.

  7. Maybe the landlord attorney advised the client against OMI because the OMI rules are very restrictive and do not allow much flexibility. (San Francisco Administrative Code Section 37.9(a)(8)). Once you do an OMI, you have fewer options in the future and you’ve basically put a giant encumbrance on your asset.

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