San Francisco yoga studio owner sued by landlord over rent ordinance dispute

Ngan Pham says her dream business the Yoga Phamily studio opened in San Francisco's Mission District in 2019, but a year later, with the pandemic she was unable to keep up with her $6,000-a-month rent.

"I didn't see any light for me to continue," said Pham.

She said she consulted with an attorney and sent her landlord a letter notifying him that she was taking advantage of San Francisco's January 11 ordinance that allows small businesses to terminate their lease.

This week, she says he asked to meet her at the studio and someone else showed up and served her papers.

"He filed a lawsuit not just for the back rent but future rent, interest, and fees," said Pham.

Pham says she has no money for a lawyer.

The landlord Jerry Azar said he himself is a tenant and was trying to make do without her rent payments.

"I do understand the fact I need to be compassionate and so I was for the last 8 months," says Azar, "Definitely a lack of income does jeopardize my business."

Azar says when he got Pham's letter, he was concerned she would not pay the back rent owed.

"You can't just drop a letter saying hey bye-bye and with no obligation to what you owe," said Azar.

Tobias Damm-Luhr is an Attorney with Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. He says there have been many calls from people wondering about the ordinance and payment of rent deferrals.

"Tier one tenants who have 10 employees or fewer have up to 2 years to repay deferred rents," said Damm-Luhr, "They also have a right to terminate their leases by giving their landlord 30 days notice."

Damm-Luhr says the dispute between Pham and Azar's, exposes one murky detail in the ordinance. The ordinance does not specify whether tenants must pay all the back rent at the time the lease is terminated, or if they can terminate a lease and still have the grace period to pay back the rent.

"I feel there should be more education for businesses owners because we don't have access to these high end lawyers," said Pham.

Pham says she has no money for a lawyer. Her landlord, Azar, says he is willing to try to work out a compromise out of court.
Some say they hope the city revisits the ordinance to see if they can clarify the language.