Rent wars: Court says landlord must make poor tenants rich

In the history of San Francisco rent control wars, landlord Edward Litke may not have committed the most egregious violations. But he's now on the hook for a huge payoff to some of his former tenants. Last week, the California Court of Appeals upheld a $1.2 million judgment against him in a wrongful eviction case involving a family who had lived in one of Litke's apartments for more than 40 years.

Robert De Vries, an attorney with 30 years of experience in landlord, tenant, and real estate law, says that the award to Jorge Chacon and his family is a lot for a rental violation case in San Francisco. "I would say this is definitely a top 10," he said.

Experts say landlords typically settle cases through insurance rather than risk going to court.

Litke owns buildings across the city and has an estimated net worth of $40 million, according to court documents. In the past 15 years, 18 of his tenants have complained about him to the San Francisco Tenants Union, manager Ted Gullicksen said.

The trouble began in 2004, when the Chacons complained about the dilapidated state of their rent-controlled four-bedroom home at 264 Dolores. By that point, three generations of the family were living in the apartment, which they rented for roughly $700 a month. Jorge, the patriarch, had lived there since 1963.

Litke claimed he couldn't repair the apartment unless the family moved out, and he served them with an eviction notice.

When the Chacons moved, they assumed they were leaving for only three months. "It was never an issue of, 'Wow, we're out of there for good,'" Jorge's daughter, Tania, testified during the trial. "No, this was our home."

But when the Chacons asked when they could move back in, Litke claimed they had forfeited their lease. Court papers say he changed the locks, and even forbade them to return to reclaim the belongings they had left in the apartment.

Unable to afford San Francisco rents, the family split up among apartments in Hayward, South San Francisco, and Fremont. Tania, who was studying for law school exams while caring for her baby, considered moving into a homeless shelter with her fiancé. Jorge and his wife, Gilma, moved from place to place. At least once, the elderly couple slept on the floor of their son's office.

The Chacons initiated a wrongful eviction action against Litke in San Francisco Superior Court in 2006. Two years later, the trial court judge, Suzanne Bolanos, ruled in their favor, using a complicated formula and expert witness testimony to determine that Jorge and Gilma would have spent another 20 years in the apartment. Bolanos calculated the "loss of use" value over those 20 years at $382,000, which she trebled to more than $1.1 million. She also awarded the family another $90,000 for emotional distress.

Meanwhile, Litke never even tried to rent out the Chacons' apartment at a higher rate. He left it empty.

Litke's lawyer, Michael Johnson, did not return requests for comment. A woman who identified herself only as an employee of Edward Litke said that he was 84 years old and too sick to speak to the media. The Chacons also declined to comment.

Full disclosure: One of the Chacons' attorneys also represents SF Weekly.

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