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Tutors in the Fine Art of Eviction Under Fire in San Francisco

San Francisco lawyers Bornstein & Bornstein and their “Rent Control Boot Camps” have become the latest symbol for inequality in the Bay Area.

San Francisco residential buildings with fluorescent lights of a soccer field. (Photo: Evan Blaser / Flickr)

If you receive an eviction notice from the law offices of Daniel Bornstein, don’t take it personally. Bornstein’s defense of his life’s work, which increasingly involves aiding in the ejection of long-term San Franciscans from their homes in the midst of the worst housing crisis the area has ever seen, is that he’s simply doing his job.

“I’m pretty agnostic about it – people hired me to do something and I want to accomplish the goal,” Bornstein told Truthout. “I’m here just to do the work that I’ve been asked to do by people.”

It’s exactly this detached sort of attitude that’s gotten the lawyer in trouble with local housing activists.

The latest wave of hypergentrification tearing apart San Francisco’s insides has brought locals a host of symbols of that gentrification. First came the Google bus and the Google Glassholes (and the Google Glass “hate crime”). Next, the NEMA (new market) luxury apartment complex, a foreboding, charcoal-black, amenity-laden behemoth opposite Twitter’s international headquarters, which birthed a hilariously dark satirical Twitter account, @rentenema, which offers nuggets such as “Yes, we have drones!” Yaron Milgrom, the white owner of the questionably named Local’s Corner, Local Mission Eatery and Local Mission Market, new upscale foodie establishments located in the majority nonwhite Mission District, was depicted as a conquistador in flyers posted around the neighborhood, and protests were held outside his businesses after a Latino family said they were turned away due to discrimination. And there are the parklets: single parking spaces permanently converted into mini-parks often erected outside fancy artisan meat shops. They’re most abundant in neighborhoods tipping toward total unaffordability for all but the tech elite, like the Mission and SoMa districts, as median rents for 1-bedroom apartments approach $3,000 per month.

Now activists are spotlighting the Bornstein brothers, whose brazen approach to taking a fee for pushing long-term San Franciscans out of their homes has become an easy lead-in for conversations around the need to expand tenant protections everywhere. Along with the Bay Property Group, the Bornstein & Bornstein Law Offices have held ongoing workshops on the art of evicting tenants, dubbed “Rent Control Boot Camps,” since 2013.

The brothers, who also maintain offices in neighboring Oakland, have become infamous here in San Francisco for holding their every-month-or-so events for landlords who want to learn how to legally evict “no-fault” renters. Anti-displacement activists in the Bay Area have spotlighted the Bornsteins as the latest Google bus-like symbol of gentrification.

A block away from the colorful Victorian houses seen on the credits of the ’90s sitcom “Full House,” a notice printed on Bornstein & Bornstein letterhead alerted Bay Area native Michael Rouppet to the fact that he was being turned out of his apartment earlier this year. Rouppet now lives a precarious existence in a Mission District squat.

“I’ve exhausted almost every option available to tenants,” he said with a sigh. “For someone like me who had protective status, who was a long-term resident of 20 years, with rent control in place, everything failed. Everything.”

The 46-year-old said a new landlord, Bornstein’s client, even went so far as to cut his phone line in an attempt to expedite Rouppet’s leaving. Though San Francisco has some tenant protections, including limits on rent increases on buildings built prior to the 1980s, there are a variety of ways landlords can evict longer-term tenants. And many are designed to replace them with the city’s increasingly homogenized crop of well-to-do newcomers who have left the city whiter, techier, and increasingly low on children, because many families can’t afford to raise kids here.

Rouppet says the new building owner used the Bornsteins and some underhanded tactics to intimidate him into leaving, including appropriating some of his possessions he still hasn’t been able to recover. But more than the material possessions, he’s lost faith in a system that favors those with the heftiest bank accounts. “I used to be a poli-sci tutor for a doctor at [San Francisco] City College to teach students about the integrity of the process and what’s earned so much confidence over generations,” he laments, “and watching the system implode on a basic civil matter – I just don’t understand it.”

Over the phone, Daniel Bornstein speaks of the “macroeconomics of supply and demand” as the major cause for the housing crisis. But housing activists point to the real estate and tech companies and lobbyists and their dealings with local government officials that have earned the industries’ favorable terms. That includes tens of millions in tax breaks for tech companies during a time when many San Franciscans have been turned out onto the streets.

“This is an international destination, so there’s an enormous demand,” Bornstein reasons. “People from all over the world want to live here, but there’s limited supply.” One major reason for the crisis, he says, is all the bureaucratic red tape that surrounds the development of new housing – some of the same red tape, like rent control, that housing rights activists swear is the only reason that there are any low- to middle-income residents left in the city.

The queer, anti-gentrification group Gay Shame recently disrupted one of the Bornstein’s “eviction boot camp” seminars for landlords who are looking for a legal way to dump long-term tenants. Twenty minutes into the forum, a couple dozen protesters swarmed the stage where Daniel Bornstein was clicking between PowerPoint slides, chanting “Evict the evictors!”

When talking to the media, Gay Shame speaks collectively. Through email, a representative for the group told Truthout that they were targeting Bornstein & Bornstein because of the firm’s “willingness to be so open about their thirst to evict tenants and make people houseless.”

The first dot-com boom of the late 1990s brought another housing crisis to the Bay Area. “Back then,” according to Gay Shame’s rep, “all the rich 20-year-old techies plowing down Valencia (Street in the Mission District) in their brand new Hummers didn’t seem like they were here to stay.” Two-thousand and fourteen’s “glassholes” now have ” ‘Baby on Board’ stickers on their hybrid SUVs, and are ‘building a life in SF,’ which means cultural death for almost everyone else.”

“It’s the most intense, politicized environment I’ve ever seen,” remarks Bornstein. “It’s the first year I’ve been subject to protests in my office.”

Jacquie Taliaferro is another native San Franciscan who has lost his home and was present at the March protest held outside the Bornstein’s San Francisco office. Taliaferro works with the local chapters of the NAACP and economic justice organization ACCE, and says the current crisis is “twice as bad” as any prior housing crisis – and the Bay Area’s had its share of housing crises, including a similarly heated one during the 1970s.

The Manilatown Heritage Foundation is a Filipino cultural organization headquartered at the site of what was once the International Hotel, a building that in the 1960s and ’70s lodged low-income Asian Americans and was ground zero for housing rights activism during that era. In November 2013, the organization refused an activism award from the mayor.

The earlier fight “included tenants, elders, activists, artists and students who recognized that the real estate developers and financial interests were out of control – power unchecked,” wrote the board of the foundation in an open letter. “Fast forward more than three decades and we find ourselves in the biggest speculation-fueled eviction epidemic in memory . . . It doesn’t matter if the honor is bestowed by Mayor [Ed] Lee, President Obama or the pope. We have to say no.” The same week, Mayor Lee and his predecessor, now-California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, appeared in television commercials imploring voters to approve the construction of 134 luxury condos that would sell for between $2 and $10 million apiece. Both officials have received hefty campaign contributions from real estate interests over the years.

Out of the movement from last century, important protections including rent control were born. But the movement lost ground in the 1980s and 1990s, with the real estate industry putting its weight behind the passage of statewide acts limiting tenant protections and rent control known as the Ellis and Costa-Hawkins Acts. The Bornsteins’ workshops tout the Ellis Act as a way to get long-term tenants out, as it allows speculators to buy rent-controlled buildings in San Francisco and evict renters.

The housing movement has seen one success in making repealing the Ellis Act a politically prudent thing to get behind – now, even SF’s mayor and local tech lobby outfit have publicly voiced their support. Legislation to weaken the act passed the state senate in May. Unfortunately, even if the act finds its timely death, it will only help, at most, a couple thousand residents, as it’s just one of the tools real estate speculators have at their disposal. The Costa-Hawkins Act is a far more substantial one, as it effectively outlaws rent control in buildings built in the city post-1979, affecting thousands more people in a city where the majority of people are renters.

And so advocates for San Franciscans without Google stock options are trying other routes, including direct action. Protests sometimes drawing hundreds to the scene of evictions have in some cases delayed the ousting of tenants, and at the very least, worked to put unwanted attention on the landlords doing the evictions. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project helps keep track, with its updated “Dirty Dozen” lists of “serial evictors.”

Of course, activists have also turned the spotlight on the tech industry and its lobbyists who have secured those tax breaks that have made the already tech-saturated city even more attractive to rich industrialists who can afford the record-breaking costs.

For Daniel Bornstein, “It’s not a political issue as much as it is a practical issue.” He’s just trying to accomplish a goal for his clients, he says, noting matter-of-factly that there are other lawyers who would not take such cases “because it comes with displacement of potential tenants.”

In Gay Shame’s lexicon, attorneys like the Bornsteins are “misery speculators.” But like it or not, eviction law is big business throughout the United States. Across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, the Bornsteins compete with a group of attorneys who simply call themselves The Evictors (“We’ll relieve all of your eviction woes and get you fast and economical results,” boasts their website). Ogden, Utah-based Kick’em Out Quick offers its name and a space in its online database to dozens of eviction lawyers around the country, who each pay $150 per month for the privilege.

In the Bay Area, though, their occupation has become especially controversial. As the housing rights movement here continues to grow, how does the latest symbol for San Francisco’s inequality catastrophe handle the haters?

“You just have to have thick skin.”

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