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The laws regarding roommates in San Francisco are fairly complicated, and can confuse anyone renting an apartment in the city. It is important that tenants understand some basic facts about their tenancy in order to understand and protect their rights.

First of all, a person gains tenancy (or becomes a tenant) in an apartment by living there for 30 days and paying rent. They also gain all rights under rent control (if their building is under it) and state law. No actual written lease is needed in order to be a tenant. Of course, it is better to have something in writing to be able to prove the terms of your tenancy. A tenant in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy hotel) gains her rights under state law after 30 days and her rights under the rent ordinance after 32 days.

A tenant is defined by his or her relationship to the landlord or the person to whom he or she pays rent. If a tenant pays rent to another tenant, then that person is, in effect, the tenant's landlord. Here's very some basic definitions:

Tenant who moved into the premises under a written or oral contract with the landlord or who inherited the apartment after the original master tenant left. S/he collects the rent from the subtenants and pays it to the landlord. He is also responsible for informing the landlord of repair and other issues.

Someone who has no relationship with the landlord, but instead pays rent to another tenant.

Tenant who may have moved in after the lease was signed, but has established a relationship with the landlord usually through payment of rent directly to the landlord and by requesting services such as repairs.

The master and co-tenants are fully protected under just cause, meaning they can't be evicted except through one of the reasons spelled out in the rent ordinance (see evictions for a list). The subtenant is also protected if he/she has lived in the apartment for 30 days, moved in after April 25, 1998, and was not informed in writing by the master tenant before she/he moved in that her just cause protection was being waived.

A master tenant can evict a subtenant, but not a co-tenant. A co-tenant can also evict a sub-tenant. But a master tenant cannot evict a co-tenant. A sub-tenant cannot evict anyone. The landlord can only evict all of the tenants in an apartment. It doesn't matter if only one person has broken the lease. The landlord cannot evict just that one person.

As for rent increases, the master tenant can pass them onto the other tenants when he receives them from the landlord, but they can't be more than the allowable amount every year (for instance, 1.9% of their share of the rent).

When the master and co-tenants move out, the subtenant may or may not receive a rent increase. If the subtenant moved in BEFORE 1/1/96, his/her rent increases only if the landlord gave him/her a 6.14 Notice (see paragraph below for a discussion on 6.14) within 60 days of knowing that the tenant lives there. If he/she moved in after 1/1/96, then the rent increases. The co-tenant, who gained his/her status by being added on to the lease after the original tenant moved in or by paying rent directly to the landlord, would not receive a rent increase unless the landlord gave him/her a 6.14. If that 6.14 was received after payment of rent was made to the landlord, then the co-tenant can try filing a petition against the increase at the Rent Board on the grounds that he had already gained co-tenancy.

A landlord can serve a notice (called a 6.14 Notice, based on Section 6.14 of the Rent Board Rules and Regulations) on a subtenant saying that he recognizes that person merely as an "occupant," and that when the master- and co-tenants leave, the apartment will be treated as vacant and the rent can go up to market value.

The Master Tenant cannot charge you more rent than is fair, based on the proportion of space you occupy and/or share, services provided, etc. In other words, whoever has the largest bedroom should probably be paying the largest share of the rent, unless the other tenants are receiving all sorts of services that the person with the largest room is not receiving. The mater tenant cannot live rent-free while the subtenants pay all the rent. For more info on this, see the Rent Ordinance, 6.15C(3).

Before a tenancy begins, the Master Tenant should disclose to the subtenant, in writing, the amount of money he is paying to the landlord in rent. If a subtenant feels that she is paying more than her share, she can file an illegal rent increase petition at the Rent Board and ask that a determination be made on how much she should be paying. 

If your roommate is moving out (doesn't matter if you're a subtenant, co-tenant or master tenant), you can always replace that person. That is your right under rent control. If your lease says that you can have a certain number of people in the apartment or if the landlord has always allowed a certain number, then you can always have that many people. If your lease says you need the approval of your landlord in writing or that the prospective tenant needs to fill out an application, then that's what needs to be done. The landlord can only withhold his approval on reasonable grounds.

Standards of "reasonableness" are outlined in Section 6.15 of the Rent Ordinance Rules and Regulations. Basically, the landlord can refuse the person on the grounds of either an eviction on his record or a bad credit rating.

After receiving the roommate replacement letter or the application of the new roommate, the landlord has five (5) days to process the application. If he doesn't approve the tenant within that time period, then you can file for a decrease in services at the Rent Board.

In the event that your lease says no subletting or assignment, you can still replace a roommate. You just can't sublet (go away and rent your room to someone during that time) unless you write the landlord for approval. But the landlord does not have to grant it.

By the way, a prohibition on subletting and assignment must be enlarged and bolded in the lease and initialted by the tenant. Or the landlord must provide the tenant a written explanation of the meaning of the prohibition.

If your lease says no subletting or assignment without written permission of landlord, then you need to write for permission and include an application if required by the lease. The landlord has 5 days to process the application.

If you are under rent control, this is an illegal rent increase under Section 6.13 of the Rent Board Rules and Regulations. A landlord cannot charge more rent for an additional roommate. You can file at the Rent Board for an illegal rent increase.

A tenant in a rent-controlled apartment has a right to move in domestic partner or a family member. 
Under 6.15D of the Rent Ordinance's Rules and Regulations, you should be able to do it as long as having another occupant won't violate the city's housing code. Under that code, two people can live in a bedroom, three in a one-bedroom apartment (two in the bedroom, one on the sofa). Similarly, in a two-bedroom, a maximum of five persons can live there (two per bedroom, one on the sofa). You must be registered as domestic partners, though. It's simple. Go to City Hall and fill out the paperwork.Then send a copy of the certificate to the landlord along with a letter informing him that your partner or family member will be moving in.

For more information, you can call us or stop into our housing rights clinic, Monday-Thursday, 1-5pm, 415-703-8644.

Some Quick Tips:

To become a tenant, one need only pay rent and live somewhere for 30 days. No written lease is needed.

A master tenant can evict a subtenant -- but only with just cause, unless she waived the subtenant's just cause protection with a written notice before the person moved in.

A master tenant and co-tenant cannot evict each other.

When all the co-tenants leave and the last remaining tenant is a subtenant, the landlord can raise the rent to market.

Rent in a rent-controlled apartment should be proportioned according to the amount of space a tenant occupies and the services he or she receives. A master tenant cannot live in a place rent-free,

A tenant in a rent-controlled apartment always has the right to replace a roomate. S/he doesn't always have the right to sublet or assign. That depends on the lease.

A landlord cannot charge extra rent for an additional roommate.

A tenant has a right to move in a domestic partner or spouse as long as an extra person doesn't violate the Housing Code.