In September 2021, members of the Veritas Tenants Association (VTA) launched a rent strike against Veritas Investments Inc., one of the largest landlords in California. Veritas Investments is also currently facing a lawsuit from 106 tenants in 39 of their buildings. A large portion of Veritas Investments properties are rent-controlled and tenants who live in these buildings have accused the landlord of alleged “intimidation, harassment and abuse.”
Rent strikes are often used to get landlords to the negotiation table. In this case, Veritas Investments’ refusal to sit down to that table with the VTA to discuss their rent strike backfired and has led to the passing of a trailblazing “Right to Organize” ordinance, requiring private residential landlords in San Francisco to recognize and meet with tenant unions and associations.
Veritas Investments claims to have “more than 7,000 apartments” under management, while overseeing “assets in excess of $3.5 billion.” At the time of the rent strike, Veritas tenants owed approximately “$5.7 million in rent debt,” according to the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, who joined the VTA in their fight.
PPP LOANS FOR THE WEALTHY
Meanwhile in 2020, Veritas Investments was busy applying for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which were loans and grants intended for small businesses, not billion-dollar property managers. Nevertheless, Veritas Investments was awarded about $5.7 million from two PPP loans–nearly the exact amount owed in back rent by Veritas tenants. Public outcry pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, typically pro-landlord in her policies, to make public statements demanding the the first loan of $3.6 million be repaid:
“Larger companies like Veritas, one of San Francisco’s largest corporate real estate management firms, which has billions in assets and access to liquidity through other sources, were not the intended beneficiaries of PPP loans,” Pelosi wrote in a statement. “I join San Franciscans in calling on Veritas to return its PPP loan.”
Veritas Investments said they would repay the PPP money, but as of publication there is no indication that they have returned a cent of the taxpayers’ dollars. The Boycott Times reached out to Veritas Investments for comment but have not heard back.
After announcing the rent strike in September 2021, the tenant association put forth the following statement: “VTA members have decided that the burden of COVID rent debt should not rest on each individual tenant. As these tenants come together and choose not to apply for government rent-relief programs, they transform their debt from an individual mark of shame into a source of collective power.”
CAN WE GET A MEETING?
The VTA rent strike was not called for lightly. Tenants had petitioned for debt relief before the strike, but GreenTree Property Management (one of Veritas Investments many subsidiaries) quickly emailed back, informing tenants that any rent payments not being subsidized by the government must be paid by the renter or else they could face eviction. Tenants were also warned that nonpayment could lead to “collection actions and judgments from the courts,” which “may appear on a resident’s credit report.”
Many Veritas renters applied for state assistance, but the system has been slow to distribute money and is underfunded. As of April 15, 2022 “only about 39% of requested funds for rent assistance in San Francisco had been paid out.” Other tenants, that did not qualify or believed that they would not be helped by the state, feared retribution from Veritas Investments, and began paying their rent on credit cards, incurring additional losses known as “shadow debt.”
When the VTA and the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco tried to schedule a meeting with Veritas Investments they were refused. So, instead of applying for state assistance (that would go directly to the landlord) the VTA decided not to pay their rents and not to apply for the state program until assurances were made from Veritas Investments that the back rents would be forgiven.
Tenant advocates across California quickly pointed to the VTA rent strike as another example of a landlord choosing to ignore the existence of a tenant association because there was no law forcing them to do so. Fortunately for tenants, Aaron Peskin, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and his staff understood the stakes.
“When Veritas was refusing to meet with their tenants, or saying there was no way they were going to meet with tenants if there was an advocate in the room, that’s when we cried foul,” said Lee Hepner, an aide to Peskin.
TENANTS’ “RIGHT TO ORGANIZE”
On October 19, 2021, Peskin and six of his collogues, introduced Ordinance 211096 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Better known as the tenants’ “Right to Organize” ordinance, the law requires “residential landlords to allow tenant organizing activities to occur in common areas of the building; require certain residential landlords to recognize duly-established tenant associations, confer in good faith with said associations, and attend some of their meetings upon request; and provide that a landlord’s failure to allow organizing activities or comply with their obligations as to tenant associations may support a petition for a rent reduction.”
Derek Hena, a member of the VTA, said that the ordinance “couldn’t come at a better time.” The tenants’ “Right to Organize” ordinance would become the first legislation in the United States to require private residential landlords to meet and negotiate with tenant organizations in good faith.
“We will show what it means to unionize the biggest private landlord in S.F.,” Madelyn McMillian, a member of the VTA, told Capital & Main. “We will be bargaining on a full range of issues affecting our lives.”
VERITAS INVESTMENTS’ CONCESSIONS
On December 14, 2021, three months after the VTA rent strike began, Veritas Investments launched a debt relief program. If tenants applied to California’s Emergency Rent Assistance Program and qualified, any rent not covered by the state would be forgiven by Veritas Investments for up to 18 months. The landlord also said that it would not increase rents in 2022 for those tenants that qualified.
Even though these two large concessions were made, Veritas Investments still refused to sit down with the VTA to discuss what was going to happen to the tenants who owed back rent but did not qualify for California’s assistance. The VTA also wanted repayment of the shadow debts incurred by tenants taking out debt to pay their rent. In January 2022, the San Francisco Public Press reported that the VTA “has been trying for more than a year to draw Veritas Investments Inc. to the bargaining table” with no success.
Despite the accumulation of more than 1,200 members, the VTA could still not get a meeting. After five months with at least 50 households withholding their rent, the VTA was satisfied enough with the December concessions made for the most vulnerable of its tenants, and ended the rent strike at the end of January 2022. The members of the VTA, frustrated by their inability to get Veritas Investments to the table, vowed to continue their work.
THE RIGHT TO EXIST
“With these concessions, the VTA hopes to send a resounding message to local and state lawmakers,” the VTA wrote in a prepared statement with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “Our state’s largest landlords can and should shoulder an equitable portion of pandemic debt. Despite eviction threats and intimidation tactics, the VTA is showing the way.”
In response to these statements, Veritas Investments told the San Francisco Business Times that they had “no agreement” with the VTA or the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and that they had never “been in negotiations with either of the two groups that issued a press release saying they were ending a rent strike.” In 2020, however, Veritas Investments did offer members of the VTA “50% forgiveness of unpaid rent from April to July 2020” and “a repayment program for the remaining balance.”
On March 11, 2022, London Breed, the Mayor of San Francisco, signed the tenants’ “Right to Organize” ordinance. And on April 11, 2022, the day that the ordinance went into law—several of the VTA organizers met at a mailbox across from City Hall. They had been waiting for that day and already had their letters made out to Veritas Investments demanding what is now legally theirs: for the VTA to be formally acknowledged by Veritas Investments Inc., and for a meeting.