Getting ‘revenge’: How some local tenants got their rents reduced

9f045 920x1240 Getting revenge: How some local tenants got their rents reduced

In a local housing market hit hard by the fallout of COVID-19, the price of rent is increasingly up for negotiation.

In a local housing market hit hard by the fallout of COVID-19, the…

Three months of 20 percent off rent for a house in the Excelsior District. Nine hundred dollars off per month for a condo in Hayes Valley. A 16 percent reduction in base rent, six weeks free and a $2,500 bonus for a luxury apartment in Jack London Square. Just a few months ago, deals like these would have read like Bay Area rental fan fiction. But in a local housing market hit hard by the fallout of COVID-19, the price of rent is increasingly up for negotiation.

“Many renters are discussing new arrangements with their landlords and property managers, largely because the pandemic has had such a devastating effect on incomes,” said Igor Popov, chief economist at online rental marketplace Apartment List.

In April, the company released the results of a national survey that found 11 percent of U.S. renters had their rent proactively lowered in the wake of shelter-in-place orders, while nearly half of those who could no longer pay their rent in full were able to negotiate for reduced or deferred payment.

On top of that, many local tech companies announced extended or indefinite plans to work remotely, prompting some workers to leave San Francisco in search of greener pastures, freeing up once highly coveted real estate in the process.

Popov believes that the majority of rental negotiations are “borne out of necessity” as a result of a COVID-19 related reduction in wages, as was the case with Julian Shipp, who lives in San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood.

“I pushed my roommates to let me start a negotiation because I was about to move in with my parents. My mom is high risk and I really wanted to avoid this, so we emailed the landlady. All of us had lost some or all work by [then] so my roommates agreed,” said Shipp, who ultimately received a temporary $700 per month decrease in rent.
Other Bay Area residents, however, are motivated to negotiate not by dire financial straits, but a desire to take advantage of a rental market that has finally tipped the scales in their favor. (Some sources in this story chose to remain anonymous for reasons of confidentiality.)

“I’ve lived in San Francisco since 2013 and I have had a really stressful time finding reasonably priced housing. I was really excited to turn the tables,” said one resident. She was able to negotiate four percent off of an already-discounted property as well as secure more favorable terms in her lease. “It gives me a feeling of getting ‘revenge’ for all of those years.”

Thinking of negotiating with your own landlord? Go in prepared with these tips we heard from successful negotiators, real estate professionals, tenants’ rights activists, and more.

Consult the experts

Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, Executive Director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF), recommends that those trying to negotiate with their landlord reach out to a tenants’ rights organization first — especially if you feel you’re at risk of losing your housing.

Between the health crisis and the eviction moratoriums currently in place throughout much of the Bay Area, “no tenant should be moving out right now because they can’t pay rent. A huge percentage of tenants calling us right now do not know that,” Sherburn-Zimmer said.

Beyond the HRCSF, Sherburn-Zimmer recommends the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition. Other local tenants’ rights organizations include the East Bay Community Law Center, Bay Area Legal Aid, Eviction Defense Center and Tenants Together.

Cite hard evidence

“Using data always helps make the case,” said Ben Metcalf, Managing Director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley.

Look at online rental listings to get a feel for the going rate in your desired area, or use a tool like Rentometer. You can also check in with neighbors to see what they’re paying — try turning to Nextdoor if you’re feeling sheepish.

And remember, many vacant units are now sitting empty for a month or more, so “if you calculate a month’s rent on your home, subtract that from the annual rent and divide by 12, you have a new offer to present to your landlord” when renewing your lease, advised Lisa McCarrel, managing partner of

Lay your cards on the table

Don’t feel the need to beat around the bush — in the current housing market, you can afford to be upfront about your situation.

After his building manager reached out to set the terms of a lease renewal, Bob, a resident of Oakland, “replied saying basically, ‘Look, my first choice is to stay here, but here are these other buildings offering cheaper rents and promotional deals. It is hard to justify staying here when I can pay so much less elsewhere.”

“At first, the manager didn’t bite, but after another email saying I was ready to move and a few days of waiting, she came back with a lower offer, which I accepted,” he added.

Get it in writing

If your landlord tries to push for a phone or in-person conversation, insist on moving it to email or another form of written communication.
Although one Jack London Square resident’s landlord “tried to do as much [negotiation] as possible over the phone,” they insisted on continuing the conversation over email — something that later proved essential when their landlord doubled back on a particular offer. With a previous email serving as proof, they were able to negotiate on the terms they had originally agreed to.

Consider organizing

“Tenants are always stronger together, but now we see them organizing more than we’ve ever seen before,” Sherburn-Zimmer said. “It’s a really powerful measure to make sure people are protected throughout a building — especially really vulnerable tenants,” such as non-fluent English speakers or those with Section 8 Housing.

Ryan Perkins of Oakland consulted housing organization Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) to form a tenants’ union with five of the six units in his building. Together, they drafted and sent a letter to their landlord, then proceeded to successfully negotiate a rent reduction with the help of a tenants’ rights lawyer.

“The residents in the building are very happy that we came together and received some concession, even if it is minor,” Perkins said.

Be persistent

Of course, not all landlords are on board with negotiating, but as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, that may very well change.

“I’ve negotiated with several landlords, but I find 99% of the landlords I speak with to be misinformed … [they] really, really want to believe they will still have tens of thousands of students coming into town, desperate for housing and willing to pay astronomical rental prices,” said one recent graduate of UC Berkeley. “The funny thing is that, at rentals where landlords denied my request for a modest $100 or $200 per month [off], those units are still vacant months later.”

Still, this didn’t dissuade them from attempting to negotiate in the future.

“Landlords certainly don’t hold back when it comes to treating their rentals as a pure business, instead of someone’s home, so tenants should also treat this as a business and negotiate.”

Emily Blaire is a freelance writer in the Bay Area. Contact her at

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