This Date in UCSF History: Rents Surge


Originally published in Synapse on November 4, 1999.

Presidio student housing has some of the greatest views in the city but is now falling prey to the city’s high rent problem as well.

Just over a year ago, the first students and university-affiliated families began moving into their new apartments at the Wherry housing complex near Baker beach in the Presidio. For many of them, the decision was difficult.

The Presidio is remote if you don’t own a car, and the 29 Muni line is unreliable at best.

For some, leaving a rent-controlled San Francisco apartment for unprotected tenancy with the federal government was an uncertain prospect.

However, students were attracted to the beautiful location and the University Discount Program, which offered apartments at well below market rents.

This month, after six months to one year of this plan (depending on when people moved in), students and families received the startling news that their rents will be going up to market rate over the next two years starting with their next lease.

This means that some students will be paying up to 33% more rent, with no rent-control protection against a similar increase in the following year.

The biggest rent increase will be for three bedroom split-level apartments which will go from $1,200 to $1,600; a three bedroom flat will go from $1,600 to $1,800; and four bedroom apartments will go from $2,400 to $2,600.

Families in two bedroom units are in the process of renewing their leases but haven’t been told what their rent will be!

For many, especially single parent families, the Presidio’s deal with the University Consortium for low-cost housing made it financially possible for them to live in the city.

It is likely that this change will push them out.

For others, the rental increases will be a burden they have to bear because the difficult housing market they left has only gotten worse in the last year. Many complain that it is unreasonable to expect them to move again so soon.

Feeling betrayed, students are searching for answers to how this drastic policy change has come about in such a short time.

“Everyone signed a one year lease with no guarantee of rent control. Anyone who entered it must have realized that it was a risky business,” said Ann Ostrander of the Presidio Trust at a recent meeting between the Trust, representatives of the John Stewart Company (property management company for the Presidio Trust) and Wherry tenants.

According to the Presidio Trust, students will still have “specialty tenant status” for the availability of a subset of apartments, but at market rates.

They say current tenants will still be getting a deal because their rent increases will be phased in over two years.

The Trust maintains that the 30 day warning students received is “very appropriate notice” of the planned rent increases.

The Presidio Trust

The Presidio Trust was created in 1996 by the U.S. Congress and is charged with preserving the Presidio’s natural and historic resources and with making the park financially self-sufficient by 2013.

That means they need to make enough money to refurbish the existing buildings, and to maintain them.

Keeping 170 apartments at below market rates costs the Presidio about $ 1 million a year, a significant chunk of their $50 million annual budget.

The reason for the policy change is unclear.

“I was told by the Baker Beach housing office that the University Consortium was fading out,” said R., a postdoc at UCSF.

Has the University Consortium fallen apart?

“No,” said Irene Agnos, UCSF’s assistant Vice Chancellor on University Advancement and Planning. “The University Consortium exists for purposes other than student housing. It was set up to make agreements between the universities on issues such as community service.”

Representatives of other schools in the consortium, including the University of San Francisco, Hastings College of Law and Golden Gate University, also expressed surprise and concern about this problem, and all agree that the consortium has not broken down.

Many said they would be meeting with their students soon to discuss this problem.

University of the Pacific Dental School, which is not in the consortium but had negotiated housing for (heir students when they heard about the low-cost apartments, was also surprised and disappointed that the University Discount Program would not continue.

Clearly, rent increases to market rates were intended all along.

“If that was the deal then why didn’t they make that clear from the start?” asked one postdoc with a young son. “Families need to be able to budget.”

The Presidio Trust maintains that this was the plan all along.

The Financial Management Program report from the Presidio Trust to Congress on July 8, 1998 (before the first students arrived), states in the residential leasing policies section that they will “offer short-term market-rate leases to other federal employees, specialty tenants (e.g., students, visiting faculty) and the general public, in that priority order, until demand from persons at the Presidio requires all the housing.”

Clearly, rent increases to market rates were intended all along.

“If that was the deal then why didn’t they make that clear from the start?” asked one postdoc with a young son. “Families need to be able to budget.”

The general impression from students and universities alike is that this plan was not intended as a short-term deal.

Evidence that the universities are committed to this low cost housing option lies in the fact that many have provided resources to make it work.

UCSF hired a person to work with the John Stewart company to arrange student households and covered the costs of advertising the housing.

The Academy of Arts college and San Francisco State University both have shuttle bus lines out to the Presidio and UCSF has been considering the possibility of a shuttle for some time.

One official, who asked not to be identified, said that it wouldn’t have made any sense for universities to pay the costs for the plan for only one year and that simply having “preferred housing” status for their students at market rates doesn’t help them at all.

“I asked the Presidio Trust about rent increases after the first year because I was concerned about signing a one-year lease with no guarantee of rent control,” said R, who moved from a rent-controlled apartment to the Presidio so her child could have a yard to play in.

“They told me that there will be no rent increases in the foreseeable future and that any increases would be decided by the University Consortium with the Presidio Trust.”

And X., a nursing student who chose the Presidio over other low-cost student housing that was available to her, claims, “I asked the Presidio Trust directly about the possibility of rent increases with the next lease and they said that so long as my university affiliation didn’t change, my rent would not change.”

Many other students said they did not expect rent increases at all and had definitely been told that their rent would stay the same so long as their university status could be verified.

“I was told that my rent increase would be $35 but when I went to sign the lease, the increase was $200,” said A., a student at San Francisco State.

“Specialty Tenant”

One of the problems appears to be in the definition of “specialty tenant.”

Students and the University Consortium maintain that they were led to believe that the term promised reduced rents in return for the universities providing a tenant pool.

The Presidio Trust maintains that the “specialty tenants” only get preferred status for availability of these highly desirable apartments.

Life at the Presidio, after all, is very good.

Despite public transportation issues, this is a very nice place to live because of the proximity to Baker beach, ample parking, light airy apartments with hardwood floors, new appliances and some yards and balconies.

The Presidio has breathtaking views of San Francisco, Marin and the Golden Gate Bridge and many of the apartments have ocean views.

The atmosphere is neighborly with many of the families getting together at the newly refurbished playgrounds to chat.

One official said that it wouldn’t have made any sense for universities to pay the costs for the plan for only one year and that simply having “preferred housing” status for their students at market rates doesn’t help them at all.

But the atmosphere wasn’t always so nice.

“Nobody would have moved in here at market rate when the first students did under this program. The houses were boarded up and the yards overgrown, they needed to establish a community to make it nice to live here and they used the students for that.” said M., a postdoc at UCSF.

Other students agree that there has been an adjustment period.

They complain that peeling lead-based paint has yet to be replaced on many buildings, plumbing problems have been common and the Presidio Trust’s rules have taken some getting used to.

Most of these rules stem from plans to return the land here to its natural state and have necessitated some uncommon policies.

For example, pets are not allowed to roam outside (unless directly supervised) to protect the indigenous wildlife.

Plants must be in pots and only of a certain terra cotta style and only with approved plant types that will not cross-pollinate and contaminate natural plant species.

Outdoor furniture is not permitted to be visible. Yards are not to be watered.

“We don’t have a problem with preserving the natural environment but it is hard to see the park employees and military people who live up the hill watering their lawns and having their dogs off the leash. If they’re protecting the park, why are the rules only for us?” said J., a federal employee who is paying market rate now.

“If they’re (the Presidio Trust) doing this to the students, what’s stopping them from raising our rents too?”

Even with the rules and problems, students and families at the Presidio know they have a good deal.

“We like living here and we believe in the goals of the Presidio Trust to restore and maintain the park. All we want is for the Presidio Trust to honor the verbal agreement they made when we moved in. That is, no unreasonable rent increases unless our university status changes,” said N., a mother whose husband is university-affiliated.

For now, students and families are petitioning the Presidio Trust to meet with them and members of the University Consortium to talk about the proposed increases and are gathering information.