San Francisco tenants fight back against unjust evictions

SAN FRANCISCO – As landlords pushing for higher rents escalate their efforts to evict tenants – often on the flimsiest of excuses – a broad coalition of housing rights and community organizations is launching a campaign to educate renters about their legal rights to stay in their homes.

At an April 20 press conference in the historic, heavily Latino Mission District, Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, said the eviction crisis faced by San Francisco renters is now “hitting an extreme point,” with notices of eviction filed by landlords with the city’s Rent Board growing by 54.7 percent in the last five years.

Rents for one-bedroom apartments in the city grew by 13.5 percent last year, and in February the median rent reached $3,460 – higher than New York City’s $3,000 median.

The 27-member San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition has just issued a report, San Francisco’s Eviction Crisis 2015, analyzing the factors underlying the crisis and the types of evictions that are occurring. The report challenges the legality of many of the evictions, which it says may lack a valid reason or be based on the slightest of pretexts, and says the actual number of threatened or attempted evictions “is many times greater than those reported to the Rent Board.”

Besides strengthening policies and laws that protect renters, Shortt said, “We need to ensure that renters across the city understand the rights they do have, and know how to use them.”

Gesturing toward nearby apartment buildings, Maria Zamudio, campaign organizer with Causa Justa/Just Cause, said the scene in the neighborhood “is a microcosm of what’s been going on in the Mission for years … After years of Cesar Chavez St. being pretty much ignored, on the edge of the Mission, tenants are feeling the pressure of rising rents.” She said the coalition wants to make sure that all tenants, and especially seniors and those whose first language is not English, know their rights and “know that if they fight together, they can win.”

Zamudio introduced long-time resident Doña Margarita, who told reporters she has lived in the same apartment on Cesar Chavez St. since 1963, but is now threatened with eviction under the Ellis Act, a state law that lets landlords evict all tenants from a building if they intend to stop renting apartments there – most often to convert the premises into condos.

“It’s the only home I’ve had in the United States,” Doña Margarita said. “I’ve lived through six different owners of the building. I’ve always been a good tenant – always paid my rent on time, never created any problems, always had good relations with my neighbors. I’ve raised three grandchildren in this apartment, and I will keep fighting this unjust eviction. They will not move me from my home.”

Fellow renter Sylvia Smith is experiencing another growing phenomenon: the “nuisance eviction,” in which landlords make totally false claims about reasons they seek to evict tenants, or greatly exaggerate a minor violation.

Smith, who has lived in the same apartment for 41 years, said she has experienced constant harassment since her building was bought by the current landlord, who has recently acquired nine other buildings in the city. She said she has been alleged falsely to be a drug dealer, and to be a wealthy homeowner.

“She accused me of 60 violations in seven months, when for 41 years under the three previous owners I didn’t get one,” Smith said. “I ought to be in jail right now, with all the accusations she’s made.”

Shortt said that many tenants, unlike Smith, are frightened out of their homes by such allegations, or claims for very minor incidents like carrying bicycles through a common hallway or arguing with a security guard over having a legally parked car towed away.

The Anti-Displacement Coalition says the threat of eviction will likely be worse this year than at any time since the peak of the dot-com bubble in the 1990s.

“Based upon the increasing rates of non-Ellis Act “no and low fault” evictions and the resurgence of Ellis Act evictions, we project that the city is likely to see eviction threat levels exceed 2,600 formally reported notices by February 2016 – the number could be even higher.

 “The challenge over the next period will be to not only provide services to victims but also to adopt policies that will reduce the number of unjustified threats and speculator-driven evictions.”

The coalition is holding a Know Your Rights Fair on Saturday, April 25 from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. at the Tenderloin Neighborhood School, 627 Turk St., so tenants can be prepared to fight back when they are threatened with an attempted eviction. Many organizations in the coalition also provide counseling for tenants.

Photo: Doña Margarita tells her story.  |  Marilyn Bechtel/PW


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.