Dylan Tokar

More protests over Willits bypass project

Controversy over the Willits Bypass continued Monday, as Willits protesters sought to block Caltrans contractors from continuing work on the highway construction project. Protester Robert Chevalier, 66, locked himself to a Caterpillar tractor used for hauling felled logs using a steel “lock box.” At another location, four other protesters unfurled a banner to block work trucks that were preparing for pile-driving tests. Chevalier was arrested along with protesters Sara Grusky and Ellen Faulkner, who is 75.

Meanwhile, a new tree-sitter took to the branches of a rare wetland ash earlier this month. The protester, who goes by the name Condor, stationed himself at the northern end of the bypass on May 2. Since then, Condor has been replaced by a tree sitter who goes by the name of Hawk. “Part of the message of the medium is that birds move around,” explained Naomi Wagner, a spokesperson for Redwood Nation Earth First.

Condor was the eighth tree-sitter to protest the bypass. The first five were forcibly removed by CHP with cherry pickers on April 2. Two others decamped more recently before being arrested.

In the meantime, construction on the six-mile, four-lane highway continues, albeit with a few setbacks. On April 9, an inspector for the North Coast Water Quality Control Board visited the site and found that Caltrans had violated its permits by disturbing ground within 50 feet of streams and failing to follow statewide practices designed to prevent streamside runoff.

Critics maintain that it’s typical of Caltrans to go ahead with construction, even if that means violating the conditions of their permits. Jamie Chevalier of Earth First said, “Caltrans will just do what they’re gonna do and pay a fine.”

According to Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie, however, the inspection was “normal routine business.”

“[The infraction] was an oversight on Caltrans and the contractor’s parts because the vegetation is so dense you can’t actually see the creek.” said Frisbie. “It won’t happen again.”

Last week, the California Transportation Commission approved an additional $26 million for the creation and rehabilitation of approximately 2,000 acres of wetlands. Many of those mitigation projects are years down the road, said Frisbie, a fact that alarms Chevalier and other opponents of the bypass.

Frisbie also said they were aware of the new tree-sitter, and were monitoring the situation.

When the Guardian reached Condor by phone last week, the tree sitter said he’d experienced minimal contact with Caltrans employees so far. “Yesterday they limbed an oak tree about a 100 feet from me,” he said. “I guess that was their response to my presence.”

Chevalier, the protester who locked himself to the Caterpillar, is a retired commercial fisherman who worked for years in Alaska.  He said he felt compelled to take a stand: “One thing we learned from fishing is that taking care of our rivers and forests creates a booming economy that will last. These big make-work projects leave the locals and the taxpayers worse off than before. It’s just a waste,” he said. “This project is trashing the land, water, and local jobs that we really do need.”

Property resistance in the Bay and beyond

In 2004, Hannah Dobbz climbed up the drainpipe of an abandoned building in Emeryville and disappeared through a broken window. Outside, her friends waited with blankets, pillows, and food. Making her way down to the first floor, she unsecured the plywood door and let them in.

Dobbz had stayed in squats before—in the East Bay, and in Europe. But now she was finally “bottom-lining” her own. The property, an abandoned boat and turbine warehouse they called the Power Machine, was in legal limbo. The city of Emeryville had claimed eminent domain over the building, but settlement proceedings would continue for the next two years.

In the meantime, Dobbz and her friends made the Power Machine their home. They fixed up the building and collected bikes, books, and art supplies. They threw loud parties. Located under a bridge and next to the railroad, no one seemed to care—not even the landlord, who stumbled upon Dobbz during her second week of residency.

Dobbz’s experience, along with those of other East Bay squatters, became the subject of her film, “Shelter: A Squatumentary” (Kill Normal Productions: 2008). In 2007, she left the Bay Area and moved to Buffalo, but continued to advocate for the practice of seizing abandoned spaces, dubbed “property resistance.” Now, she has published a book on squatting.

The book, Nine-Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States (AK Press: 2013), is both a guide for squatters and a history of land occupation movements. It delves into the philosophical justifications for squatting, and challenges the assumptions behind the economic forces of the housing market. For Dobbz, squatting is a tactic: it reasserts that shelter is everybody’s basic human right, not just the privilege of those who can afford it.

“One of those things that I’m hoping to do is rethink how we view property, to try and shift the emphasis from housing as a market value, to more of a use value,” said Dobbz.

Nor could the timing be much better, since recent events seem to have rekindled property resistance activism in the Bay Area. In 2011, the Occupy Oakland movement created a dialogue around public space and private ownership. Now, with the tech boom driving the cost of living ever higher, that dialogue has been infused with newfound urgency. 

Steve Dicaprio is the CEO and founder of Land Action, an organization that offers support and legal information to land occupiers. As Occupy Oakland unfolded, he began to research property foreclosures. He wanted to know which sites could be most easily occupied and defended from a legal standpoint. According to Dicaprio, organizers of Occupy Oakland soon began to consider the occupation of foreclosed homes as an alternative to demonstrations in Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza.

The goal of Dobbz, Dicarprio, and other activists is to foster a discussion around property. The focus needs to be on stewardship, not ownership, said Dobbz.

Both Dobbz and Dicaprio will be speaking at Looking Glass Arts on Friday, April 19th, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20, with proceeds going to Land Action. A free event will also take place the following night at 7:30 p.m. at the squatter residence Hotmess/RCA Compound (656 West MacArthur Blvd.), with a dance party to follow.

In the meantime, you can read an excerpt of the book here.

Caring: The Shanti project


In 1974, Charles Garfield was working in the acute care facility of the newly founded UCSF Cancer Center. A psychologist, Garfield had a patient named Jim Dees who had been diagnosed with Guillain Barré Syndrome. Dees’ body was rapidly deteriorating, and his prognosis was uncertain.

Garfield met with Dees for an evaluation. He quickly realized that Dees had no pathologies, no phobias — nothing for a mental-health professional to treat. He was simply “an extraordinarily aware man facing an ugly death,” Garfield later wrote.

Instead of leaving his care to physicians and nurses, Garfield ontinued to meet with Dees — not so much as a trained psychologist, but as a peer. He became someone Dees could talk to and share his fears, someone he could rely on for practical support after he was discharged from the hospital.

Dees was the first client of what Garfield would call the Shanti Project, and the basis for the sort of peer-to-peer, volunteer caregiving that has become a model for an estimated 600 organizations all over the world. It’s an organization that’s been a crucial thread in the fabric of San Francisco’s history. When the AIDS epidemic struck in the 1980s, the city asked Shanti to step in. In the early years of the epidemic, basically every person with AIDS had some form of contact with Shanti, Garfield estimates.

“If you had taken what we did away, I have no idea what many of those folks would have done,” says Garfield. “The catastrophe would have been unimaginable.”

Kaushik Roy, a former volunteer who is now the organization’s executive director, notes: “We do for our clients what you or I might do if one of our family or close friends got sick. It’s the difference between having one person there for you, or none at all.”

Sunshine superheroes


From the nation’s Capitol to local city halls, requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and local public records laws tend to be stymied by bureaucracy. Protecting the public’s right to know requires fierce dedication, and for 28 years, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has honored journalists, lawyers, citizens and others who have successfully used public records to hold government accountable. In an era of steep budget cuts and assaults on transparency laws, these first amendment champions deserve serious cred.

On March 12, during national Sunshine Week, the winners of the annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards will be honored at a banquet hosted by SPJ’s local Freedom of Information Committee. Here are a few of the first amendment champions who will be honored for their work.


Before embarking down the path of a FOIA request, it’s worth considering what sort of rabbit hole you might find yourself down. When then-undergraduate Seth Rosenfeld began investigating FBI activities on UC Berkeley’s campus for his senior journalism project, he started with a mere nine thousand pages of FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by his university’s newspaper, The Daily Californian. Thirty-one years and five lawsuits later, he ended up with a total of more than 300,000.

Rosenfeld, who has worked as an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, enlisted a team of pro-bono lawyers to pursue his case. The FBI resisted, claiming that the records were of little public interest and demanding that Rosenfeld pay thousands of dollars in processing fees, then by heavily excising any documents they were forced to release. The agency, which spent more than $1 million trying to withhold the information from Rosenfeld, argued that redactions were necessary to protect law enforcement operations, national security and the privacy of people named in the records. On one document, Rosenfeld found scrawled by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself: “I sense utter fright as to the Freedom of Information Act. It doesn’t open up the flood gates to every ‘kook,’ ‘jackal’ and ‘coyote’ to all our publications, files & records.”

Rosenfeld’s research led him to publish Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, which details how the FBI, under Hoover, used Cold War-era tactics to target political dissent on the UC campus. The book reveals Hoover’s close relationship with Ronald Reagan and a plot—ultimately successful—to fire then-UC president Clark Kerr. Rosenfeld is this year’s winner of the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award. (Dylan Tokar)


Using information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Jennifer Gollan and Shane Shifflett of the Center for Investigative Reporting examined conflicts of interest in California’s federal judiciary. Using financial disclosures, court records and judicial budgets, Gollan and Shifflett cross-referenced the financial investments of federal judges with cases in which they filed rulings.

They discovered that, since 2006, judges had entered more than two dozen rulings in cases involving companies in which they owned stock — a violation of federal law and the Judicial Code of Conduct. Their investigation revealed flaws in the system that should prevent conflicts of interest. In California, Gollan and Shifflett found, judges are allowed autonomy in deciding who and how their financial interests are monitored.

Their story also demonstrated that FOIA doesn’t always function the way it should. According to the reporters, the federal government inhibits public access to what is supposed to be public information, by collecting fees from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) valued at nearly five times the cost of running the system. The federal judiciary also refused to cooperate with the investigation. Fee waivers for PACER records were refused, judges were notified of requests for financial disclosures, and financial figures regarding PACER fees were withheld. (Tokar)


Copwatch is a Berkeley-based advocacy organization dedicated to monitoring police action and opposing police brutality. Last May, Copwatch filed a FOIA request and received documents revealing that the Berkeley Police Department had requested a $170,000 armored vehicle from the Department of Homeland Security. The vehicle — a Lenco BearCat G3 — resembles a military-style armored truck and was intended to assist the Berkeley, University of California and Albany police in suppressing civilian protests and potential civil unrest. Thanks to the vigilance of Copwatch, the local community mobilized to oppose the introduction of the BearCat and convinced Berkley lawmakers to withdraw the request for funding. (Avi Asher-Schapiro)

For a full list of winners, visit tinyurl.com/sunshine13. The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards Banquet will be held at 5:30pm, Tues/12. To purchase tickets, visit tinyurl.com/2013spjFOI.

Family of teen shot in Alice Griffith still waiting for Housing Authority help


Aireez Taylor, a 15-year-old Mission High School student and a resident of the Alice Griffith public housing project in Bayview, was shot seven times on Dec. 29.

It happened around 6:30 p.m. She was with several friends at a house just a few blocks from her home in Alice Griffith, also known as Double Rock. They were standing on the porch talking, her mother, Marissa, told the Guardian. Then two men armed with guns hopped out of a parked car. One of Aireez’s friends, a 17-year-old boy who lived at the house with his family, saw them coming. He ran for the door and was shot once in the foot. Aireez, fleeing after him, was shot seven times.

Residents of Alice Griffith interviewed by the Guardian described an intensification in the violent crime at and around their community in recent months. Several attributed the violence to a conflict between African American and Samoan gang members. Whatever the cause, the shooting of a 15-year-old girl stands as evidence of the ongoing danger in San Francisco’s public housing developments. Aireez’s father, Roger Blalark, said that his daughter wasn’t the intended target of the shooting. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.

But for Aireez, who survived the attack, the wrong place at the wrong time is her home in Alice Griffith. Her parents have applied for emergency relocation with the San Francisco Housing Authority, but after two months—and amid the recent scandal surrounding Director Henry Alvarez and federal reports that have rated the agency as one of the worst in California—they are still waiting for the agency to locate and repair a unit in a new housing development. In the meantime, Roger and Marissa continue to fear for their daughter’s life. “What if they find the guy and ask her to testify?” asked Roger.

Aireez made a steady recovery from the gunshot wounds inflicted upon her in the December attack. But the trauma of the event has not been as easily healed. She spent three weeks at San Francisco General Hospital. During that time, an unknown intruder tried to snap a photo of her as she lay in her hospital bed, Roger said. Later, a man claiming to be her father came to inquire about her, while Roger himself was at her bedside.

A police officer met with Roger and Marissa on the Monday following the attack. Aireez reportedly had not seen the shooters. An investigation is underway, though no arrests have been made and the police have no suspects, according to SFPD spokesperson Gordon Shyy.

The journey home from the hospital was a return to the place where she had nearly been killed, a community where the shooters presumably were still at large. “She gets shakes, every time she comes home,” said Roger. “She has to come by the corner where she got shot.”

SFPD Bayview District Captain Robert O’Sullivan said that relocation is an important part of protecting the victims of violent crimes. Ultimately, the choice to relocate a tenant rests with the Housing Authority. “There needs to be an assessment done when something like a shooting occurs in public housing,” said O’Sullivan. Alice Griffith, he pointed out, has a significant number of people in a relatively small space.

“It’s always something that is in the front of people’s mind, anyone that has a stake in this, in investigating or assisting—is this going to be a risk for this person or their family in continuing to stay here?” O’Sullivan said.

Marissa and Roger applied for an emergency transfer on Jan. 2. There was paperwork to fill out, then the Housing Authority had to search for a vacant unit that could accommodate a family of their size. Housing Authority spokesperson Rose Marie Dennis said that she could not give out confidential information regarding specific tenants, but confirmed that the majority of the Housing Authority’s holdings are studios, one-, or two-bedroom apartments.

Roger and Marissa needed something bigger. A unit that could accommodate their family was finally located in another housing development by the third week of January. Marissa was initially told that the unit would be ready in two weeks. But two weeks turned into five, and now six, and Marissa still doesn’t know the status of the unit or when it will be ready for move in.

Dennis told us the Housing Authority tries to accommodate all requests for relocation, and prioritizes tenants with emergencies. Victims of a violent crime that request a transfer are moved as soon as possible, she said. But the process of relocating a victim is often hindered by a variety of factors, including Housing Authority’s ability to allocate resources toward fixing up vacant units. The length of the wait is a matter of resources and cooperation between all the parties involved in preparing the new unit. Once a suitable place has been found, teams of custodians and craftsmen and women must work to clear, clean, and repair the unit. Preparing a unit for move in costs on average $12,000, she said.

The problem is not that there aren’t empty units. According to Dennis, vacant housing stock is in a constant state of flux, with the current occupancy rate estimated to be 96.3 percent. Since the Housing Authority manages a total of 6,476 units over 45 development projects, that would indicate that as many as 240 units now lie empty. Dennis said that some units are kept vacant by the Housing Authority for a variety of reasons, while many others are only made available as the agency finishes the repairs and renovations necessary to make the units livable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) strict standards.

Roger and Marissa’s experiences would appear to dovetail with recent media scrutiny that suggests the Housing Authority has reached a critical state of dysfunction. The agency made the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s list of troubled agencies after it received a 54 out of 100 on their latest evaluation. Scandal has dogged the agency’s leadership—three lawsuits alleging discrimination and retaliation were recently filed against Alvarez, who was also accused in a lawsuit of steering contracts to political allies. And it’s long-term capital outlook is looking increasingly bleak, as buildings accumulate decades of wear and tear and infrastructure becomes obsolescent. Stuck with a federal budget that remains constant, the Housing Authority is put in the position of maintaining outdated infrastructure that would, in the long run, be more cost effective to replace, said Dennis.

But Dennis nevertheless assured the Guardian that the agency addresses emergencies as quickly as possible—irrespective of larger, structural financial deficits. “We get bogged down in anecdotes that aren’t reflective of what’s ahead of us,” said Dennis. “We don’t have time for politics, that really doesn’t add up to positive change.”

So what is positive change for the residents of San Francisco’s public housing? With Alvarez on leave, Mayor Ed Lee has stated his intention to revamp the agency’s leadership and has appointed five new commissioners to oversee the city’s public housing.  “Being on a constant treadmill of troubled lists and repair backlogs that are structurally underfunded is not working for our residents or our City,” Lee said in a press release.

Lee spoke of a “better model” through HOPE SF, a massive redevelopment plan that began under former Mayor Gavin Newsom and which hinges on public-private partnerships. Alice Griffith is one among several sites that is being rebuilt as part of HOPE SF, with construction scheduled to begin in 2014. The plan is to create mixed-income neighborhoods where 256 new affordable rental units are interspersed in a larger community of market-rate homes.

But in the meantime, the day-to-day reality of the violence and dysfunction faced by tenants continues. “It’s not about tearing down the projects, you got to revitalize what’s already here,” said Roger.  

Roger knows that a relocation won’t necessarily solve their problems. He worries about the persisting presence of gang members at the new housing development, about the fact that he will be trying to protect his family in a community that he is much less familiar with. At Alice Griffith, Roger has connections within the community. He helps direct the Run, Ball & Learn Program, which provides basketball and tutoring programs for community youth. So they wait.

“They’re gonna have their own process,” says Marissa. “In the meantime we’re still sitting here.”

Yee says Cal coach’s shove was damaging and deserves punishment


UC Berkeley basketball coach Mike Montgomery’s spur of the moment shove of star Cal player Allen Crabbe during Sunday’s game against USC has garnered quite a bit of attention from the sports media. It also elicited a strong written condemnation from Senator Leland Yee, who is calling for Montgomery’s suspension. Yee, who got a degree in psychology from UC Berkeley, said the following in a press release:

While I have a lot of respect for Coach Montgomery and I appreciate his apology, his actions at last night’s game were completely unacceptable. As a psychologist, I can assure the university and Coach Montgomery that physically pushing a student-athlete does nothing to motivate them. We do not accept such behavior by our professors and administrators, and we should not tolerate it with our coaches.

The game was an emotional one, but representatives of UC – especially adults – need to be able to control their emotions and refrain from physical altercations with students. I urge the university to take swift disciplinary action of at least a one-game suspension and I wish the Cal basketball program the very best as they enter the final games of the season.

It’s unclear whether UC officials are likely to cave to pressure from Yee. So far the matter rests with a reprimand from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. Lee has made it clear that he thinks such a response is inadequate. He told the media that he would be calling UC officials personally on Tuesday.

Yee’s chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, confirmed that Yee did indeed spend about 30 minutes yesterday talking with Athletic Director Sandy Barbour.

“He expressed why he was concerned with the situation—as an alum, and as a father who has sent his kids to the UC, and as a grandfather who hopes to send his grandkids to the UC,” Keigwin explained. “As a psychologist, he has seen these cases where kids get pushed around, and that just leads to more aggressive behavior and eventually violence.”

Keigwin said that Barbour seemed to agree with Yee, although regarding a harsher punishment she made no promises. Yee would like to see a one-game suspension, or a redaction of his pay for the USC game.

“We’re still waiting to see what she’ll do with that,” said Keigwin. “We’ll give her a day or two to determine what the outcome is going to be.”

The magnitude of Yee’s response might seem odd, but in fact he rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the UC administration. In the past, he has very publicly battled with UC officials over issues of transparency and a controversial nomination to the Board of Regents.

Meanwhile, Montgomery—who initially responded to the incident by saying simply: “Worked, didn’t it?”—has since issued a full apology.

“Trying to get into kids’ faces every now and again just to get them going is kind of what you need to be able to do.” said Montgomery. “[It was] just a bad choice of motivational techniques on my part.”

Out of place



In his State of the City address last week, Mayor Ed Lee cheerfully characterized San Francisco as “the new gravitational center of Silicon Valley.” He touted tech-sector job creation. “We have truly become the innovation capital of the world,” Lee said, “home to 1,800 tech companies with more than 42,000 employees — and growing every day.”

From a purely economic standpoint, San Francisco is on a steady climb. But not all residents share the mayor’s rosy outlook. Shortly after Lee’s speech, renowned local author Rebecca Solnit published her own view of San Francisco’s condition in the London Review of Books. Zeroing in on the Google Bus as a symbol of the city’s housing affordability crisis, she linked the influx of high-salaried tech workers to soaring housing costs. With rents trending skyward, she pointed out, the dearth of affordable housing is escalating a shift in the city’s cultural fabric.

“All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists,” Solnit wrote. “It has become increasingly unaffordable over the past quarter-century, but still has a host of writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics and others who don’t work sixty-hour weeks for corporations — though we may be a relic population.”


The issue of housing in San Francisco is highly emotional, and there is perhaps no greater flashpoint in the charged debate than Ellis Act evictions.

When the housing market bounces upward, Ellis Act evictions tend to hit long-term tenants whose monthly payments, protected by rent control, are a comparative bargain. Even if they’ve submitted every payment on time and upheld every lease obligation for 20 years, these renters can find themselves in the bind of being forced out.

And they don’t just lose their homes; often they lose their community. San Francisco has become so expensive that many Ellis Act victims are tossed out of this city for good.

Enacted in 1986, the state law allows a landlord to stop renting units, evict all tenants, and sell the building for another purpose. Originally construed as a way for landlords to “go out of business” and move into their properties, the Ellis Act instead gained notoriety as a driving force behind a wave of evictions that slammed San Francisco during the tech boom of the late 90s. Between 1986 and 1995, just 29 Ellis evictions were filed with the San Francisco Rent Board; in the 1999-2000 fiscal year alone, that number ballooned to a staggering 440.

Under the current tech heyday, there are indications that Ellis Act evictions are gaining fresh momentum. The San Francisco Rent Board recorded 81 this past fiscal year, more than double that of the previous year, and there appears to be an upward trend.


Buildings cleared via the Ellis Act are typically repackaged as tenancies-in-common (TIC), where several buyers jointly purchase a multi-unit residence and each occupy one unit. Realtors often market TICs as a path to homeownership for moderate-income individuals, creating an incentive for buyers to enter into risky, high-interest shared mortgages in hopes of later converting to condos with more attractive financing.

The divide between TIC owners and renters came into sharp focus at a contentious Jan. 28 hearing, when a Board of Supervisors committee met to consider legislation that would allow some 2,000 TIC units to immediately convert to condos without having to wait their turn in a requisite lottery system.

One TIC owner said he was financially burdened, but had only entered into the arrangement because “I wanted to stay here and raise my family, but we couldn’t afford a single family home.” Yet tenants brought their own set of concerns to the table, saying the temptation to create TICs was putting a major dent in the city’s finite stock of rent-controlled units — the single greatest source of affordable housing in San Francisco.

“My feeling is, let’s stop doing TICs,” Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a tenants right activist with the Housing Rights Committee, told the Guardian following the hearing. “The city has to just start making sure that the condos that are built are the kind of thing [TIC buyers] can afford. Instead, we cannibalize our rental stock? That’s a reasonable way? You evict one group of people to house another: How does that make sense?”

The grueling five-hour hearing illustrated the sad fact that San Franciscans in a slightly better economic position were being pitted against economically disadvantaged renters. The two groups were bitterly divided, and all seemed weary, furious, and frustrated by their housing situations.

The condo-conversion legislation, co-sponsored by Sups. Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell, did not move forward that day. Instead, Board President David Chiu made a motion to table the discussion until Feb. 25, to provide time for “an intensive negotiation process.” Chiu, who rents his home, added: “While I myself would like to become a homeowner someday … I do not support the legislation in its current form.”

Sup. Jane Kim sought to appeal to the tenants as well as the TIC owners. “It’s very tragic that we have set up a situation where [TICs and renters] are pitted against one another,” she said. She hinted at what a possible alternative to might look like. “We should be looking at a ban of scale,” she said. “If we allow 1,800 potential units to go thru this year, are we willing to do a freeze for the next 8 to 10 years?”

It’s unclear what will happen in the next few weeks, but if this legislation makes it back to the full board in some form, the swing votes are expected to be Sups. London Breed, Malia Cohen and Norman Yee.


New protections were enacted following the late-90s frenzy to discourage real-estate speculators from using the Ellis Act to turn a profit on the backs of vulnerable seniors or disabled tenants. Yet a new wave of investors has discovered they can persuade tenants to leave voluntarily, simply by offering buyouts while simultaneously wielding the threat of an Ellis Act eviction. “The process got more sophisticated,” explains San Francisco Rent Board Deputy Director Robert Collins.

Once a tenant has accepted a check in lieu of eviction, rent-controlled units can be converted to market rate, or refurbished and sold as pricey condos, without the legal hindrances of an eviction blemish. Buyouts aren’t recorded with the Rent Board, and the agency has no real guidance for residents faced with this particular dilemma. “We don’t have the true number on buyouts,” says Mecca. “We don’t know how many people have left due to intimidation.”

Identity-wise, renters impacted by the Ellis Act defy categorization. A contingent of monolingual Chinese residents rallied outside City Hall recently to oppose legislation they believed would give rise to evictions; in the Mission, many targeted tenants are Latinos who primarily speak Spanish. From working immigrants, to aging queer activists, to disabled seniors, to idealists banding together in collective houses, the affected tenants do have one thing in common. When landlords or real-estate speculators perceive that their homes are more valuable unoccupied, their lives are susceptible to being upended by forces beyond their control.

The upshot of San Francisco’s affordability crisis is a cultural blow for a city traditionally regarded as tolerant, forward thinking, and progressive. In the words of Rose Eger, a musician who faces an Ellis Act eviction from her apartment of 19 years, “it changes the face of who San Francisco is.

Out of the Castro

By Tim Redmond

You can’t get much more Castro than Jeremy Mykaels. The 62-year old moved to the neighborhood in the early 1970s, fleeing raids at gay bars in Denver. He played in a rock band, worked at the old Jaguar Books, watched the rise of Harvey Milk, saw the neighborhood transform and made it his home.

He’s lived in a modest apartment on Noe Street for 17 years, and for the past 11 has been living with AIDS. Rent control has made it possible for Mykaels, who survives on disability payments, to remain in this city, in his community, close to the doctors at Davis Hospital who, he believes, have saved his life.

And now he’s going to have to leave.

In the spring of 2011, his longtime landlords sold the building to a real-estate investment group based in Union City — and the new owners immediately sought to get rid of all the tenants. Two renters fled, knowing what was coming; Mykaels stuck around. In September of 2012, he was served with an eviction notice, filed under the state’s Ellis Act.

He’s a senior, he’s disabled, his friends are mostly dead and his life is in his community — but none of that matters. The Ellis Act has no exceptions.

Mykaels spent a fair amount of his life savings fixing up his place. The walls are beige, decorated with nice art. Dickens the cat, who is chocolate brown but looks black, wanders in and out of the small bedroom. Mykaels has been happy there and never wanted to leave; “this,” he told me, “is where I thought I would live the rest of my life.”

There’s no place in the Castro, or even the rest of the city, where he can afford to move. Small studios start at $2,500 a month, which would eat up all of his income. There is, quite literally, nowhere left for him to go.

“A lot of my friends have died, or moved to Palm Springs,” he said. “But this is where my doctors are and where I’m comfortable. I’m not going to find a support system like this anywhere else in the world.”

Mykaels is the face of San Francisco, 2013, a resident who is not part of the mayor’s grand vision for bringing development and high-paying jobs into the city. As far as City Hall is concerned, he’s collateral damage, someone whose life will have to be upended in the name of progress.

But Mykaels isn’t going easily. The former web designer has created a site — ellishurtsseniors.org — that lists not only his address (460 Noe) and the names of the new owners (Cuong Mai, William H. Young and John H. Du) but the addresses of dozens of other properties that are facing Ellis Act evictions. His message to potential buyers: Boycott.

“Do not buy properties where seniors or the disabled have been evicted for profit by real estate speculators using the Ellis Act,” the website states.

Mykaels is a demon researcher — his site is a guide to 31 properties with 94 units where seniors or disabled people are being evicted under the Ellis Act. In some cases, individuals or couples are filing the eviction papers, but at least 14 properties are owned by corporations or trusts.

Mai told me that he knew a disabled senior was living in the building when he and his two partners bought it, but he said his plan all along was to evict all the tenants and turn the three-unit place into a single-family house. He said he hasn’t decided yet whether to sell building; “I might decide to live there myself.” (Of course, if he wanted to live there himself, he wouldn’t need the Ellis Act.)

Mai said he “felt bad about the whole situation,” and he had offered to buy Mykaels out. The offer, however, wouldn’t have covered more than a few months of market rent anyplace else in the Castro.

By law, Mykaels can stay in his apartment until September. If he can’t stave off the eviction by then, San Francisco will lose another longtime member of the city community.


Dark days in the Inner Sunset

By Rebecca Bowe

The living room in Rose and Willie Eger’s Inner Sunset apartment is where Rose composes her songs and Willie unwinds after playing baseball in Golden Gate Park. Faded Beatles memorabilia and 45 records adorn the walls, and a prominently displayed poster of Jimi Hendrix looms above a row of guitar cases and an expansive record collection.

It’s a little worn and drafty, but the couple has called this 10th Ave. apartment home for 19 years. Now their lives are about to change. On Jan. 5, all the tenants in their eight-unit building received notice that an Ellis Act eviction proceeding had been filed against them.

“The music that I do is about social and political things,” explains Rose, dressed from head-to-toe in hot pink with a gray braid swinging down her back. Determined to derive inspiration from this whole eviction nightmare, she’s composing a song that plays with the phrase “tenants-in-common.”

Cindy Huff, the Egers’ upstairs neighbor, says she began worrying about the prospect of eviction when the property changed hands last summer. Realtor Elba Borgen, described as a “serial evictor” in online news stories because she’s used the Ellis Act to clear several other properties, purchased the apartment building last August, through a limited liability corporation. The notice of eviction landed in the mailbox less than six months later. (Borgen did not return Guardian calls seeking comment.)

“With the [average] rent being three times what most of us pay, there’s no way we can stay in the city,” Huff says. “The only option we would have is to move out of San Francisco.” She retired last year following a 33-year stint with UCSF’s human resources department. Now, facing the prospect of moving when she and her partner are on fixed incomes, she’s scouring job listings for part-time work.

The initial notice stated that every tenant had to vacate within 120 days, but several residents are working with advocates from the Housing Rights Committee in hopes of qualifying for extensions. Huff and the Egers are all in their fifties, but some tenants are seniors—including a 90-year-old Cuban woman who lives with her daughter, and has Alzheimer’s disease.

Willie works two days a week, and Rose is doing her best to get by with earnings from musical gigs. Both originally from New York City, they’ve lived in the city 35 years. When they first moved to the Sunset, it resembled something more like a working-class neighborhood, where families could raise kids. The recent tech boom has ushered in a transformation, one that Rose believes “changes the face of who San Francisco is.” Willie doesn’t mince words about the mess this eviction has landed them in. “I call it ‘Scam-Francisco,'” he says.

The trio recently joined tenant advocates in visiting Sup. Norman Yee, their district supervisor, to tell their stories. Yee, who is expected to be one of the swing votes on an upcoming debate about condo-conversion legislation vehemently opposed by tenant activists, reportedly listened politely but didn’t say much.

As for what the next few months have in store for the Egers? “I can’t really visualize the outcome,” Rose says. “I can only visualize the day-to-day fight. And that’s scary.”


Fighting for a home in the Mission

By Tim Redmond

Eleven years ago, Olga Pizarro fell in love with Ocean Beach. A native of Peru who was living in Canada, she visited the Bay Area, saw the water and decided she would never leave.

Fast forward to today and she’s built a home in the Mission, renting a small room in a basement flat on Folsom Street. The 55-year-old has lived in the building for eight years; polio has left her wearing a leg brace and she can’t climb stairs very well, but she still rides her bike to work at the Golden Gate Regional Center. She’s a sociologist by training; the walls in her room are lined with bookshelves, with hundreds of books in Spanish and English.

The place isn’t fancy, and it needs work, but it’s hard to find a ground-floor apartment in the Mission that’s affordable on a nonprofit worker’s salary. Since 2011, when she moved in, she and her three housemates have been protected by rent control. And Pizarro’s been happy; “I love the neighborhood,” she told me.

The letter warning of a pending eviction arrived Jan. 16. A new owner of the building wants to turn the place into tenancies in common and is prepared to throw everyone out under the Ellis Act. There’s no place else in town for Pizarro to go.

“I’ve looked and looked,” she said. “The cheapest places are $2,500 a month or more. Maybe I’ll have to move out of the city.”

Pizarro’s building is owned by Wai Ahead, LLC, a San Francisco partnership registered to Carol Wai and Sean Lundy. I couldn’t reach Wai or Lundy, but their attorney, Robert Sheppard, had plenty to say. “San Francisco is going the way of New York,” he told me. “Manhattan is full of co-ops that used to be rentals, and lower-income people are moving to Brooklyn and Queens. That’s happening here with Oakland and further out.” He argued that TICs, like co-ops, provide home-ownership opportunities for former renters.

Sheppard, who for years represented tenants in eviction cases, said the Ellis Act is law, and America is a capitalist country, and “as long as there is a private housing market, there will be shifts of people as the housing market shifts.” He agreed that it’s not good for lower-income people to lose their homes, but “the poor will always be hurt by a changing economy. It’s called evolution.”

Pizarro told me she’s shocked at how expensive housing has become in the Mission. “It’s gotten so gentrified,” she said. “People show up in their BMWs. It’s starting to feel very isolated.”

She’s fighting the eviction. “I didn’t intend it to be this way,” she explained. “I just want to live here.” Lacking any family in the area, the Mission has become her community — “and I’m frustrated by the violence of how expensive it is.”


Affordability goes out of style

By Rebecca Bowe

Hester Michael is a fashion designer, and her home doubles as a project space for creating patterns, sewing custom clothing, weaving cloth, and painting. She’s lived in her Outer Sunset two-bedroom unit for almost two decades, but now she faces an Ellis Act eviction. Michael says she initially received notice last June. The timing was awful -– that same month, her husband passed away after a long battle with terminal illness.

“I’ve been here 25 years. My friends are here, and my business. I don’t know where else to go, or what else to do,” she says. “I just couldn’t picture myself anywhere else.”

Michael rents the upstairs unit of a split single-family home, a kind of residence that normally isn’t protected by rent control. Yet she leased the property in 1994, getting in under the wire before that exemption took effect. Since she pays below-market-rate rent in a home that could be sold vacant for top dollar, a target was essentially inscribed on her back when the property changed hands in 2004. That’s about when her long battle with the landlords began, she says.

From the get-go, her landlords indicated that she should look for a new place, Michael says, yet she chose to remain. The years that followed brought things falling into disrepair, she says, and a string of events that caused her feel intimidated and to fear eviction. Finally, she consulted with tenant advocates and hired an attorney. A complaint filed in superior court alleges that the property owners “harassed and retaliated [Michael] when she complained about the defective and dangerous conditions …telling [her] to move out of the property if she did not like the dangerous conditions thereat … repeatedly making improper entries into [the] property, and wrongfully accusing [her] of causing problems.”

Records show that Angela Ng serves as attorney in fact for the property owner, Ringo Chung Wai Lee. Steven Adair MacDonald, an attorney who represents both landlords and tenants in San Francisco housing disputes, represents the owners. “An owner of a single family home where the rent is controlled and a fraction of market has virtually no other choice but to terminate the tenancy,” MacDonald said when the Guardian reached him by phone. “They’ve got to empty it, and the only way to empty it is the Ellis Act.”

While Michael received an extension that allows her to remain until June 5, she fears her custom sewing business, Hester’s Designs, will suffer if she has to move. There’s the issue of space. “I have so much stuff in this house,” she says. And most of her clients are currently located close by, so she doesn’t know where her business would come from if she had to relocate. “A lot of my clients don’t have cars,” she says, “so if I live in some suburb in the East Bay, forget it. I’ll lose my business.”

The prospect of eviction has created a major dilemma for Michael, who first moved to San Francisco in 1987. While moving to the East Bay seems untenable, she says renting in San Francisco feels out of reach. “People are renting out small, tiny bedrooms for the same price as I pay here,” she says. With a wry laugh, she adds: “I don’t think there’s any vacant apartments in San Francisco -– unless you’re a tech dude and make seven grand a month.”