As San Francisco rents continue to rise and gentrification spreads, unscrupulous landlords are using new tactics to evict tenants from affordable housing, including bullying residents, going “out of business” and misusing zoning laws.
Last year, the mainstream press swarmed to San Francisco to cover the tech bus protests, gentrification, and activists’ disdain for Silicon Valley and “tech.” Those stories have largely died down, but the underlying grievances of many San Franciscans have not. Evictions continue. The battle being waged by residents of one building in the Mission District, which is currently facing eviction, demonstrates the persistent intensity of the attacks on low-income tenants.
On a sunny Monday afternoon in early March, tenants from Station 40, an affordable housing complex in San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Mission District, joined with activists from the Housing Rights Committee and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to hold a press conference condemning one of the latest evictions happening in the city. In late February, Station 40 tenants were slapped with an eviction notice from their landlords, Ahuva, Emanuel and Barak Jolish.
Station 40 has provided affordable housing for its residents for the past 11 years.
The complex houses more than a dozen tenants at 3030B 16th Street in the Mission. It sits right across the street from the 16th Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stop. Station 40 has provided affordable housing for its residents for the past 11 years. It is also known for housing members of activist groups like Food Not Bombs, which shares home-cooked, free meals on the 16th Street BART plaza every week, and Coffee Not Cops, which shares free coffee and pastries at the same plaza and organizes against police patrols in the area.
“Station 40 has been home to anarchist, queer and transgender refugees, broke people, veterans against war, those healing from the prison system, lifelong San Franciscans, immigrants, people with disabilities, and those who were previously homeless,” according to the groups’ press statement. Station 40 has also “hosted and/or organized hundreds of anticapitalist-oriented events, including fund-raiser, critical discussions, film screenings and performances, assemblies, book releases, art shows and workshops, and indie media projects, contributing to the rebel spirit of the Bay Area.”
The building also lies in the same intersection where developers at Maximus Real Estate Partners plan to build a 350-unit luxury apartment complex that would displace a corner of small businesses in the area. The political gendarme of this development is the “Clean Up the Plaza” campaign – a thinly veiled classist and racist campaign to “clean up” the 16th Street plaza of poor people, the homeless, people with drug addictions, working-class people of color, immigrants and other “outcasts.” The “clean up” rhetoric implies such people are the “dirt” ruining San Francisco. One of Maximus’ political consultants, Jack Davis, is also a key organizer with “Clean Up the Plaza.” Two days after the tenants’ and activists’ press conference, 300 people packed a Mission District community meeting to protest the Maximus development plan.
Angela Wish, who was born and raised in San Francisco, moved to Station 40 about five years ago and spoke at the press conference. After quitting her job as a cook, Wish said she missed cooking and “wanted to do something for the community.” That’s when her brother suggested she work with Food Not Bombs, which is housed in Station 40. She quickly came to enjoy working with the group and moved into Station 40. “I really loved it. I loved the community. I loved getting to engage with people on the street via food. That was awesome,” she told Truthout.
San Francisco rent remains pretty high and is getting higher.
Once the landlord handed tenants the eviction notice, Wish was very disappointed. She said she and other residents felt “really bummed out – sad and also wanting to do what we can to turn this into a public fight for low-income spaces in the Mission. Anyone who lives here can see that that’s disappearing.” Most of the people who live in Station 40 are “very low-income,” according to Wish, including the unemployed, artists, food service workers and students. She pays $390 a month and says that “it’s a trade-off … you live with a lot of people. You don’t get your own room.” Because of displacement, affordable housing options like Station 40 are “not going to be available anymore,” Wish added.
New development will hardly mitigate the problem. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project recently released a map tracking development projects that have been proposed and executed in the Mission District from 2003 to today. Of the 478 development projects that are already completed or under construction, only 34, or 7.1 percent, are below-market rate (BMR) units. Of the 1,332 proposed units, only 95 are BMR and 247 will potentially be affordable housing. In other words, only one-quarter of the housing units that proposed development will bring to the Mission are affordable housing.
The Jolish family – Station 40’s landlords – claims the tenants are illegally living in the building at 3030 16th Street. Barak Polish said his parents “built it as commercial space,” according to Mission Local, and that the units were never meant to be residential. However, the city’s zoning map shows that the Station 40 building is zoned as residential-commercial (also called neighborhood commercial), meaning residential units can be built there. According to local zoning laws, general office spaces are not permitted in that building. Yet, there is one office.
Right next door to Station 40 is “a tech office on the second floor of a building at 16th and Mission,” according to local reporter Tim Redmond. The office is for the company Assembly, “and from the windows of Station 40 you can see the workers sitting outside on an interior balcony on a sunny day.” Under local zoning law, this is not permitted. Gina Simi, a Planning Department spokesperson, told Redmond:
All office uses permitted in NC districts are service-based (i.e. medical service, financial service, professional service, etc.). General office space, which provides no service and is not open to the public, is not permitted in any NC districts at this time, with the lone exception of Administrative Service. However, that use is only permitted by CU, and only in certain NC districts.
Any office in a residential-commercial zone has to serve the neighborhood. As Redmond puts it, “In other words: a yoga studio was fine. A chiropractor’s office might be okay. But not a tech office.”
The Jolish family owns not just Station 40 but the Assembly office and other property in the Mission District, such as “a building on Castro Street, a couple of parcels on 24th Street, and the building on 9th Avenue that used to house Craigslist,” according to Redmond. The Jolishs are not just small-time landlords who own one building. They’re a wealthy family who own a good deal of property in the Mission.
The city’s Black population, through decades of gentrification, displacement and so-called “urban renewal,” declined from 13.4 percent in 1970 to a mere 6 percent today.
San Francisco rent remains pretty high and is getting higher. One-bedroom apartment rents increased 13.5 percent in 2014, according to Zumper. Zumper’s rent report shows that in February 2015, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco hit $3,460, making it the country’s most expensive housing market for nine months in a row. It beat New York City – again – whose median rent stands at $3,000. For two bedrooms, San Francisco’s median rent is $4,650, which is much higher than $3,600 for a similar apartment in New York City. As rents throughout the country soar, San Francisco has the nation’s highest annual rent growth, rising 14.9 percent from January 2014 to January 2015, according to real estate website Zillow.
According to the mortgage website HSH.com, the median home price in San Francisco is $742,900, meaning one would likely have to pay a $3,323.79 monthly mortgage. The salary needed to afford such a home? A hefty $142,448.33. Of the 27 metropolitan areas listed in HSH.com’s survey, San Francisco topped the list as the most expensive. According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, which studied the affordability of 378 metropolitan areas in nine countries, San Francisco is the fourth least affordable metropolitan area in the world, falling behind Hong Kong, Vancouver and Sydney.
The prices are staggering, but are not just a sign of how expensive San Francisco has become. They reflect ongoing economic violence, displacement and structural racism. The city’s Black population, through decades of gentrification, displacement and so-called “urban renewal,” declined from 13.4 percent in 1970 to a mere 6 percent today. However, African-Americans comprise 56 percent of the city’s jail population. Other communities such as Latinos, Asian-Americans, the poor, working class and even some members of the middle and professional classes are being driven from the city through ongoing evictions and the fact that they cannot afford to live in a city that caters to the top 2 percent. The Station 40 tenants’ fight against eviction is one example of this current trend.
Evictions have continued, but declined throughout recent years. According to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, which executes evictions pursuant to a court order, 1,037 evictions notices were filed and 822 actual evictions were completed in 2014. The year before that, in 2013, 966 evictions were completed; in 2012, there were 998 evictions; 1,133 in 2011 and 978 in 2010. Ellis Act evictions also declined in 2014. According to San Francisco Rent Board statistics, from July to December 2014, 29 Ellis Act eviction notices were filed. That’s lower than the 46 notices filed in December 2013 alone. The Ellis Act allows landlords to “go out of business” by taking their property off the market, thereby evicting tenants. This practice gained substantial media attention in 2014 as the act allowed speculators to swoop in and buy property after landlords went out of business, and build expensive developments. Even as the number of evictions declines, San Francisco continues to get more expensive, suggesting that the city is being economically “cleansed” of the poor, working and middle classes and replaced with the very rich, who are the only ones who can afford to live in the city. In other words, a lower official eviction rate doesn’t mean people are not being kicked out in other ways.
According to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, 1,037 evictions notices were filed and 822 actual evictions were completed in 2014.
A less official, but often more insidious form of eviction is landlord bullying. A recent CBS report highlighted tenants in a Mission District rent-controlled apartment building being bullied by their new landlord Anne Kihagi-Swain. The tenants spoke of multiple instances of landlord harassment: accusing a long-time elderly tenant of buying drugs for neighbors, refusing to deposit rent checks and cutting off the internet for three weeks. On top of that, tenants are being threatened with eviction for supposedly violating their leases. Tenants of the nine other buildings Kihagi-Swain owns tell similar stories. But Kihagi-Swain’s attorneys say the tenants are “troublemakers” and that the evictions are justified.
The proliferation of different types of eviction means we must be even more conscious of how stories about tenants are framed. Karyn Smoot of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project warned against establishing a false dichotomy between no-fault and at-fault evictions, as landlords utilize numerous tricks to find tenants “at-fault” for eviction. “From hearing people’s stories at Eviction Free San Francisco and the Oral History Project, landlords, especially the serial evictor landlords, will find any means to evict you,” Smoot told Truthout. “Whether that’s finding a violation of your lease from 10 years ago or claiming that they [landlords] have a family member they want to move in.” Landlords evicting tenants so the owner or relative can move in (a practice called owner or relative move-in) is sometimes legal but abused by landlords, while a tenant violating a lease is illegal. Smoot says that the manner and timing in which landlords use these tactics suggests they’re being used to continue evicting people.
Recently, San Francisco tenant Deb Follingstad received a notice from her landlord, Nadia Lama, that the rent on her Bernal Heights apartment was going to increase 300 percent. Even though her place is protected by rent control, the landlord said Follingstad’s rent would jump from $2,145 to $8,900 a month along with a $12,500-per-month security deposit. Lama pulled a slick maneuver to get away with this. Since Follingstad lives on the top floor of the two-unit building, Lama began turning the bottom-floor unit into storage by removing the stove, sink and toilet. This effectively makes the building a single-family home and, thus, no longer protected under rent control. Tenants in single-family homes or condos are protected from evictions but not rent increases. Since Follingstad cannot afford the $8,900 a month rent nor the expensive security deposit, she might move out.
Smoot described additional strategies landlords use: “Even though there’s rent control, for example, they can store up the legal rent increase over years. There’s like a 3 percent rent increase that’s allowable. They can store that up over years and then pile it all on you at once, which is legal but can make you move out. Or if you’re undocumented, they can change your locks and then say, ‘You can pick up your keys if you have your card.’ These are all common practices. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who experience them aren’t around anymore to talk about what happened.”
“Landlords, especially the serial evictor landlords, will find any means to evict you.”
Residents of Station 40 want their landlord to sell the property to the San Francisco Community Land Trust, a local nonprofit that purchases properties to prevent evictions. In their press release, the residents state, “Our position in this has remained the same: if the Jolish family wishes to sell this building, they should sell it to the San Francisco Community Land Trust – an option that would allow them to sell at a more than fair price and allows us to stay, still with affordable rents, while also keeping many of the other struggling neighbors in place.”
One recent successful example of the Community Land Trust in action is the so-called “Merry-Go-Round House,” a 14-bedroom, 114-year-old blue-and-white Victorian house in the Mission. In 2014, the house’s 15 residents were on the verge of an Ellis Act eviction. But once the trust purchased the building, the eviction was halted. According to KQED News, “The land trust owns the building and will grant a 99-year lease to a nonprofit cooperative formed by house residents. Residents pay rent, an average of $800 a month per room, to the land trust. The land trust, in turn, is helping the residents get set up to manage the co-op’s budget and take care of all the details that a property management company might typically handle, such as bookkeeping, landscaping and repairs.”
Community land trusts function by purchasing the property and then allowing residents to stay in a building through a long, lower-cost lease. This allows tenants to stay in their units at an affordable price. The Jolish family has refused this solution for Station 40.
In addition to threatening housing, gentrification is also threatening the city’s beloved dive bars. Plans to bulldoze Lucky 13, a well-known dive bar in San Francisco’s Castro/Upper Market neighborhood, were recently submitted to the city’s Planning Department. Developers plan to replace the bar with a five-story condominium complex.
Another dive bar in gentrification’s crosshairs is the 21 Club in the Tenderloin. In its place will be a cocktail bar called Big. Lamenting the growing number of sleek, expensive cocktail bars replacing San Francisco dive bars, Broke-Ass Stuart wrote in the San Francisco Examiner:
The 21 Club is a Tenderloin dive bar filled with everything from street hustlers to Mexican cooks to rave kids in pink wigs. It’s weird and grimy, and when you walk in, you know that you’re gonna get cheap drinks and meet interesting characters. It’s the kind of place where you can blow off some steam and not care about what other people think. And this is why it’s beautiful. At this point in history, San Francisco desperately needs more 21 Clubs and far fewer cocktail bars. Because when this bubble bursts, where are the newly out-of-work people gonna drink?
Not only is gentrification pricing people of out of the city, but it is also changing the very culture that made San Francisco the interesting city that it is.
Even as the story of San Francisco’s gentrification disappears from mainstream news headlines, economic displacement, evictions and cultural changes in the city continue. It is important to remember that San Francisco’s rising rents and economic displacement are not just driven by new tech buses, but – significantly – by speculators, landlords, and developers and corporations with serious political power.