No room left in San Francisco for an artist who helped make the Mission what is

Pub date October 11, 2013

After four decades living and creating art in the Mission, iconic San Francisco artist and curator Rene Yañez is being threatened with eviction.

Yañez made local history in 1972 when he brought Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring the dead, to San Francisco. The parade through the Mission District every Nov. 2 quickly became a Bay Area tradition, drawing thousands of people each year.

He founded the Galeria de la Raza and brought Latin America’s premier artists and photographers to showcase their work there. When the Museum of Modern Art rejected the work of a little-known Mexican woman, it was Yañez who gave a young Frida Kahlo a space to exhibit her paintings. He taught art classes for youths in the community and offered crucial support to many of the Mission’s mural projects.

In 1998, the San Francisco Foundation awarded Rene the “Special Trustees Award in Cultural Leadership.” Now, the man who has contributed so much to the culture of this city finds himself on the verge of being expelled from it.

Rene’s impending eviction from the house on San Jose Avenue where he has lived for the for 35 years is producing a fierce reaction. Fellow artist and personal friend Guillermo Gómez-Peña recently released an open letter expressing his outrage and rallying for public support of Rene’s cause.

“You are being physically and culturally evicted,” Gómez-Peña writes. “Shame on this city! Shame on the greedy landlords and politicians! Your sadness is ours…A city without Rene Yañez…can’t be called San Francisco.”

Gómez-Peña’s cry to action will be answered tomorrow (Sat/12) at 2pm at the Brava Theater on 24th Street with Our Mission: No Eviction, a march in protest of the Ellis Act, the law used to evict all of the tenants living in the five-unit house on San Jose, including Rene, his partner Cynthia, his former wife Yolanda, and his son Rio. (For more on tomorrow’s event and the city’s eviction trend, see our Politics blog).

On Saturday, Oct. 26, Brava Theater in the Mission will host “Our Mission: No Eviction!” a fundraiser in honor of Rene and Yolanda featuring art and performances.  All proceeds from ticket sales to the event will go to the legal expenses of fighting the eviction, as well as Rene and Cynthia’s medical bills; both the artist and his partner are currently battling cancer.

“They were kind of at peace that this would be their home when they passed away, in the community they’ve put so much into,” Rio told us. “Cynthia could be dying or dead while they are in the process of moving.”

Under the Ellis Act, Rene and Cynthia qualify for a year-long postponement of their eviction because of their illness, a fact which their landlord, Sergio Iantorno of Golden Properties, LLC, neglected to tell Rene when he offered him $21,000 and a years’ free rent if he accepted his eviction immediately.

Consulting his lawyer, Raquel Fox, Yañez was informed about the legal extension and proceeded to successfully apply for it. Even without her advice, though, Yañez would not have accepted Iantorno’s offer. As Rio explained, that amount is nowhere near enough for Rene and Cynthia Yañez to get another place in San Francisco, especially in the neighborhood that they call home.

“They are in their 70s. They aren’t looking for a huge buyout so that they can start a new life,” Rio told us.

When their original landlord died 13 years ago, Yañez and his fellow tenants pooled their money to make a bid for the house. Golden Properties saw their offer, and doubled it. Now, they are banding together again to refuse Iantorno’s money and fight  the eviction.

“I would rather take my chances and fight it,” Yañez told the Guardian. “And also I see it as resistance to what is going on and affecting a lot of people.”

On Oct. 1, the San Francisco Rent Board released its Annual Statistical Report for fiscal year 2012-2013. The report revealed a 36 percent increase in eviction notices since the year before. Evictions from rent-controlled apartments in particular are at an 11-year high.

The Ellis Act was used 81 percent more than last year, providing the basis for almost 10 percent of all evictions. The law was used with greatest frequency by landlords in the Mission District. Meanwhile, city public health officials estimate that someone earning minimum wage would need to work more than eight full-time jobs to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment downtown.

“It is a disaster,” states Christopher Cook, an organizer with the nonprofit group Eviction Free Summer. “Individuals, families, and increasingly small businesses are being hammered by these twin tsunamis of evictions and dramatic rent increases. Those two factors have been driving people out of the city in ever greater numbers for the past 10 to 15 years.”

Gómez-Peña blames these changes on the mass of high-paid young people produced by the second dot-com boom. They may work in Silicon Valley, but they play in San Francisco, and this new class of wealthy young techies can and will pay any price to live in the city—especially the Mission District.

“I see them everyday, the hordes of iPad and iPhone texting zombies, oblivious to us and our lives, our inspirations and tribulations,” he writes. “I see them in my building and on the street, invading the city with an attitude of unchecked entitlement, taking over every square inch and squeezing out the last drops of otherness.”

It is no easy task to make room for all that wealth when the majority of the city’s residents are renters protected by law against unfair rent increases, landlord mistreatment, and unwarranted evictions. The actual strength of these safeguards may be waning, though, leading Gómez-Peña to warn the public in his letter that, “As renters our hours here are numbered.”

The only way to evict a tenant in San Francisco is by claiming one of 15 “just cause” reasons for removing them. Among those 15, the Ellis Act is something of a landlord’s dream date, skipping all the talking to get straight to the action—eviction. Established in 1985, the California law gives landlords the unconditional right to evict tenants if they are “going out of business.”

In order to implement the Ellis Act, a landlord must evict all of the tenants in his or her building, giving them 120 days notice, and wait five years before they can put the units back on the rental market at an increased price. However, the law does not prevent landlords from renting the units out as short-term lodgings, or converting them to be sold as one massive unit, tenancies in common or condominiums.

“Ellis Act evictions are impossible to fight,” admitted Ted Gullickson, the head of the San Francisco Tenants Union. This makes them an ideal weapon against rent control, which has allowed residents from lower income brackets to hold onto their homes in San Francisco for decades while the values of the real estate grew and grew. Even then, many tenants do not feel secure. Guerra has heard stories about people with rent control living for decades without hot water, working windows, heat, or even a stove. “To have this amazing rent control,” she concludes, “they put up with substandard living.”

When something broke in their building, Yañez and his family often did not even tell the landlord about it. If they did ask him to fix something, and he ignored their request, no complaints were ever made. “Because of rent control, we tried to keep a low profile,” Yañez acknowledges. “We tried not to bother the landlord or make too much of a fuss, because we did not want to find ourselves in this position.”

Rene has been aware of how precarious his situation is for years. Iantorno attempted to evict him multiple times. He watched as neighbors, nonprofit organizations, and local artists accepted their own eviction notices without a fight. When he first opened the Galeria in 1970, Yañez had a list of artists living in the Mission that neared 200 names. Today, it does not even reach 20.

“Since 2000, they’ve started this thing in the Mission,” he states. “They were very quiet about it at first, but now it’s accelerating. Willie Brown started it, this trend of redevelopment, eviction, displacing people without consideration. He opened up this gaping wound in the Mission, and now these developers are throwing salt on it, trying to kill the patient,” he chuckles. “People get really upset when somebody paints over a mural, like, ‘It has history, it has value, it’s been here for years,’ but they don’t have anything to say if the muralist gets evicted.”

Legally, there is not much that Yañez and his family can do in the coming year to stop their eviction. Even an advocate like Cook admits, “You can’t reverse an Ellis Act. All you can do is fight it, try to make it clear that it’s not worth the landlord’s while, that they’re gonna be in for a world of headaches, costs, and public shaming if they do this.”

Yañez has not accepted the eviction, but he is preparing for the worst, searching for a new home for Cynthia and himself. He continues to scour the Mission, in vain. “I love the Mission,” he explains. “I’ve been there 40 years. I adopted it, it adopted me. And it needs cultural preservation,” he says, curling his hands into fists that bang the air. “We saved the community from really greedy people who had absolutely no interest in who we were as a people. They just saw us as savages standing in the way of them making money. That attitude is still here. It’s actually worse than ever—unregulated and devastating. When I see the trucks moving people out, older people who have no idea where they’re going, sometimes they go downtown to the hotels—I just think it’s really heartless,” he finishes, his eyes wide in earnesty.

Guardian of San Francisco culture that he may be, Rene and Cynthia Yañez will be forced to leave the city in search of somewhere more affordable if their eviction occurs. In that event, there is little chance that the elderly man will be able to return to the city to curate SOMArts annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition as he has every year since he began it.

“I’m hoping that I can hang in. It’s a throw of the dice, but I still have some miles left in me,” he says, his eyes drooping wearily.

There is a chance that the exhibition, which opened today (Friday/11), might be Yañez’s last. Every year, he changes the theme. This November, the Dia de los Muertos exhibition is dedicated to all the living battling cancer, and  all the dead for whom that battle is over. Each piece is haunting, and all together it is a stunning collection encompassing a range of ages and races to touch any and every person that sees it. Like a loved one lost to cancer, the exhibit leaves you wanting more, yet so grateful fpr what you have experienced.

His last or not, it is something that Yañez can be very proud of.