Inside the squat

Pub date April 6, 2010

By Evan DuCharme

Homes Not Jails (HNJ) has fought diligently for two decades to shed light on the economic disparity that exists in San Francisco, where the number of homeless people would fit almost perfectly into the supply of vacant homes.

So on a cold Saturday night, April 3, as I sit shivering in the back of a van waiting for my group’s turn to covertly enter a vacant house, I’m surprised at the calmness on some of the members’ faces. This group of eight is planning to enter and occupy apartments at 572 and 572A San Jose Avenue. And while only a few have been through this before, the rest make up for their lack of experience with a passion for the cause.

Around 2 a.m., the group somehow manages to enter the building without being caught, but it’s not easy. Between the drunken couple arguing on the street, the cops breaking up a bar fight nearby, and a neighboring couple who keep shining flashlights at the units, the group should never have made it in. But it does, and at the moment there’s no time to dwell on luck because there’s food and water to unpack, entrances to secure, and rooms to search, all while remaining perfectly silent and unseen.

Typically HNJ, a project of the San Francisco Tenants Union, conducts weekly searches it calls “urban exploring” in the hopes of finding useable vacant property to set up as a “squat” for people looking for a place to live rent-free. Every so often, its activism goes mainstream in the form of public occupations like this one, when the media is notified.

The immediate goal is to simply enter, secure, and occupy the apartment until noon the next day when a rally starting at 24th and Mission streets will march right in front of the building. Once there, they are supposed to let fly a couple HNJ banners while the rally outside features speeches, chants, and music by the Brass Liberation Orchestra.

But the catch is that the squatters cannot be seen before the rally arrives outside, otherwise their cover will be blown, they could be arrested, and the goal of shedding light on this waste of vacant housing will be ruined.

After attending HNJ meetings and events for a few weeks, I was allowed to follow the group into the apartment and report on their occupation from the inside as long as I protected the anonymity of those who wanted it. With that in mind, the group included Tim, one of the most experienced HNJ members; SFSU grad-student Aaron Buchbinder; Elihu Hernandez, a candidate for the District 6 seat on the Board of Supervisors; Matt, another experienced HNJ member; and local activists Carling, Scott, and a seventh member who asked to remain anonymous.

The building they targeted had strong symbolic value; it was where an elderly man was forced out by the landlord using the Ellis Act, which for the past decade has been the root cause of a large number of what the group sees as unjust and immoral evictions.

The Ellis Act was adopted in 1985 to give landlords the right to clear their rent-controlled buildings of tenants and get out of the rental business, expanding their previous rights to evict tenants through Owner Move-In (OMI) evictions, which allowed landlords and their immediate family members to oust renters.

Once a landlord invokes the Ellis Act, tenants in the building are given 120 days to move out, although seniors and those with disabilities must be given a year’s notice. Tenants are entitled to almost $5,000 each in relocation costs, or a maximum of almost $15,000 per unit. Seniors and those with disabilities get an extra $3,300 each.

After the building is vacated, it is usually taken off of the rental market for at least five years. During that time, the former tenants retain the right to reoccupy their old units at their original rent for 10 years. If the building is re-rented within five years, the landlord can only charge what the previous tenants were paying. These restrictions are attached to the deed and apply to subsequent property owners as well.

Although the restrictions were meant to discourage the eviction of tenants from rent-controlled units, they also have encouraged some property owners to keep buildings vacant while they wait for property values to increase or to re-rent their units at higher prices. If the landlord wants to convert, remodel, or add any additions to the property, they still must seek the city’s approval.

This landlord power is the primary reason HNJ chose to occupy 572 and 572A San Jose Avenue. A few years ago, the property was purchased by Ara Tehlirian, who sought to remodel it and live there himself, evicting 82-year-old Jose Morales in the process. Morales had been legally renting the property since 1965 and challenged his eviction in court.

Morales won when the judge ruled that it was illegal to evict him for the sole purpose of renovating the building for the new landlord. But Morales’ success was short-lived. Tehlirian invoked the Ellis Act, so Morales was no longer legally able to live in his home. When Tehlirian subsequently asked for permission to renovate his house as he had initially planned, the judge denied the request citing that landlords cannot invoke the Ellis Act for an OMI eviction.

One reason the Ellis Act is used so frequently traces back to the passage of Proposition G in 1998, which prevented the type of eviction initially tried on Morales. Prop. G requires landlords invoking an OMI eviction to move into the evicted tenant’s unit within three months of the eviction and to stay for a minimum of three years.

Furthermore, it limited such evictions to one person per building and banned them if a comparable unit was open in the building. Finally, and the reason cited in Morale’s case, it made permanent an existing law that was set to expire in June of that year that prohibited any OMI eviction of senior, disabled, or catastrophically ill tenants.

Tehlirian, like many others before him, decided to use the Ellis Act to bypass these OMI restrictions. Ted Gullicksen, director of the Tenants Union, said Prop. G had the unintended effect of encouraging property owners to clear their buildings of tenants, a requirement of Ellis Act.

“A vacant building is generally worth 20 to 30 percent more than a building occupied with tenants because the landlord can do whatever he wants with the units, including selling them or renting at market rate,” he told us.

So Morales was forced out of what remains a vacant building. This is why HNJ illegally occupied the property, arguing that trying to effect change through legal avenues is at times just as difficult as Morales’ individual struggle against the Ellis Act. It highlighted the human cost of property rights.

“People who keep vacant buildings for profit tend to be the same ones who donate money to political campaigns,” Tim said. Which is why he is resorting to a form of civil disobedience that is very likely to end with him in handcuffs.

Around 1 p.m. Sunday, April 4, the rally met in front of the property and the occupiers frantically rushed to hang banners and secure any entrance the San Francisco police might find. As the first drops of rain fell, the Brass Liberation Orchestra played, speakers including Gullicksen and Morales said a few words, and the Food Not Bombs organization supplied free food to occupiers and members of the rally.

After a few hours, the rally dispersed with much appreciation from those inside the apartment and what started as a group of seven SFPD squad cars dwindled to two. Tim, Elihu, Scott, Aaron, and Matt decided to remain in the building while the rest of us said goodbye and climbed out an open window.

The remaining members spent their second night in the building, but this time they didn’t have to be quiet. Supporters brought the group pizzas and a neighbor offered to supply water to the group as long as they didn’t mind if it came from her tap. They huddled in the same room playing cards and joking until Tehlirian and the SFPD made it through the front door, ending the occupation.

Each member was cited and released on the premises at 1:35 p.m. April 5 under penal code 602m for trespassing. Tehlirian stood by and observed while his lawyer, Zach Andrews, unsuccessfully pressed him to charge the group with breaking and entering. When the group dispersed, Tehlirian and a few members of the SFPD broke through a second door to gain access to the bottom level of the property.

When Tehlirian came out for a break, I tried to speak with him but he refused to answer my questions. Shortly afterward, I met up with the HNJ group at the Tenants Union and asked Tim if he thought they were successful in accomplishing their goals. “Not completely,” he said. “But we made the most with what we had.”

Tenants may not have the law on their side in many cases, but in a city that is two-thirds renters, they have each other. And for a few days, they had one more home. The group’s feelings seemed to be summed up by this quote on a HNJ pamphlet: “We are too valuable to live huddled in the rain, in the parks, in dangerous unhealthy shelters. Freezing, dying so that others can realize profits.”