Some Fire Victims Find There’s No Returning Home
Originally published in MissionLocal on Oct. 16, 2013.
It was a Sunday morning at 9:51 a.m. when a fire broke out in a stairwell and moved swiftly through the three-story building at the corner of Duboce and Valencia Streets, injuring one tenant, damaging a second building and leaving 37 residents homeless.
“By the time anyone knew there was a fire, the outside of the building, including the fire escape, was all on fire,” said Spencer Crooks, 32, who lived in a top-floor unit at 101 Duboce Ave., where the fire started.
As residents fled, fire trucks arrived and within an hour the conflagration was contained. But by then, damage had been done. The fire spread to the adjacent building at 204 Valencia St. and both structures were deemed uninhabitable.
In the days following the incident, the city partnered with the Red Cross to help the victims find temporary housing and Mission community members launched a fundraising campaign. Authorities assured the tenants that they would be able to return once their homes were restored. Tenants waited.
Maura Soloranzo counted the days before her family could move back in. Nine months after the May 6, 2012 fire, the phone call came.
“The guy that rent to me said I no more coming,” Soloranzo said in broken English describing the February phone call. “They said no more house.”
Confused by the language barrier, Soloranzo contacted her former neighbor Gloria Castillo. Like Soloranzo’s family, which was living in a friend’s small room on Bryant Street, Castillo’s family was staying with friends until their Valencia apartment was ready. But the two, along with 11 other tenants, soon discovered that there would be no return. They had “no more house.”
Under state law, once landlords have repaired apartments, they must contact the former tenants to offer them the same apartment with the same lease conditions that existed before the fire.
The tenants discovered, however, that although their apartments were being repaired, JJJ, the limited liability corporation that has owned the apartments since 1995, decided to invoke the Ellis Act and take the apartments off of the market.
Rachel Fox, an attorney with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, is representing the tenants, and filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit in May. In court documents, she says that real-estate broker John Oei called Soloranzo and others to let them know that their apartments would never be ready. JJJ’s registered agent is Jacqueline Oei, but it is unclear if they are related.
“They said no more money for me,” Castillo said. “They finish construction but they say no more come back.”
Calls to the Oeis were not returned and Fox declined to comment on the status of the case because it is ongoing.
While it is fairly unusual for fire victims to discover landlords have invoked the Ellis Act, its use to evict tenants have been on the rise, although still well below the last dot.com boom. Ellis Actevictions jumped 81 percent to 116 households between March 1, 2012 and Feb. 28, 2013, according to the the Rent Board’s annual eviction report.
The 1986 legislation allows owners to evict tenants as long as they evict all of a building’s tenants and keep the apartments off the market for five years.
The Mission District’s strongest jolt of gentrification came in the late 1990s when annual evictions notices in the city doubled from 1,500 to 3,000 evictions. While the Mission only had nine percent of the city rental units, it had 16 percent of the evictions, according to city eviction reports. In the biggest year for Ellis Act evictions — the final year of the decade — 879 households were affected, according to the rent board.
As the Valencia lawsuit progresses, questions about the source of the May 6 fire remain unanswered. No one witnessed it and the San Francisco Fire Department closed its investigation two months after the incident stating that they were unable to determine a cause of the fire.
At the time of the fire, the building, which has a history of amassing dozens of liens at a time for unpaid utility bills, had just over $15,000 in liens against it, according to property records. Four months later, the landlords paid off the liens.
Meanwhile, tenants are left to fend for themselves.
Lorena Hernandez and her eight-member family have moved twice since the fire. Last year, the city’s Health and Human Service agency helped the Hernandez family find short-term housing on Treasure Island. The city allowed them to stay in the rent-controlled apartment until September with the idea that their homes would be repaired by then.
Last month, time ran out.
“They say they cannot help us anymore,” Hernandez said. “We had to find a new place.”
Hernandez put their belongings in storage and her husband, five children and her mother lived out of a car for two weeks as they searched for a new home. Last month, she found an apartment they could afford in Richmond.
“It was so hard,” Hernandez said. “I was looking every day.”
The lawsuit filed by Fox is not the only one involving the Valencia building owner.
The medical marijuana dispensary owner who leased the ground-floor commercial space is fighting an eviction in court. The business cannot be evicted under the Ellis Act, because the legislation only applies to residential units.
One day after the fire, the tenant, Sultan Alkhraisat, received a letter from the building owner that gave him three days to move out. The letter said Alkhraisat was “using the premises for an unlawful purpose” and therefore had to vacate. It then cited the federal law prohibiting the sale of controlled substances, which in this case refers to marijuana.
Alkhraisat’s attorney Steven Schectman answered the complaint arguing that the business was operating within California law, which allows for medical pot shops.
Moreover, he pointed out, his client had a lease with the owner that specified the area would be used for a dispensary. The lease ran from April 2006 through 2026.
After delays, Alkhraisat’s trial date is slated for Nov. 4.
While the Valencia tenants are in legal battles with their building owner, the adjacent Duboce building damaged by the fire is almost fully restored.
On Sept. 26, Fred’s Liquor store located on the ground floor of the 101 Duboce Ave. reopened. Shop owner Fuad (Fred) Ateyeh, who also owns the building, hosted a three-day party to thank the Mission community for their support, Ateyeh said.
“They stood by me when I needed them the most,” he said. “I valued their encouragement through it all.”
The celebration drew more than 180 people, he said.
Ateyeh expects the Duboce building to be fully restored in about four months. Since the fire, he has tried to keep his five tenants informed about the progress of the project, but hasn’t been able to contact two of them.
“Some of them moved away and the others I tried to contact didn’t have working numbers,” he said.
Ateyeh invited the tenants he was able to reach to the store opening and plans to welcome them back into their restored homes soon, he said.
“I haven’t talked much with the residents,” Ateyeh said. “But I will give them first priority to move back in.”
Crime Recap: Thieves Use Pepper Spray to Rob Man
A 27-year-old male probably wishes he had been the one carrying pepper spray early Friday morning as he walked south on Mission Street near 16th Street.
At about 5:55 a.m. three men who looked like they were in their 30s approached the victim from the front. Two of the suspects put their hands in the man’s pockets, searching for money.
The victim resisted and the third suspect shot him in the face with pepper spray, a chemical that can cause tearing, pain and temporary blindness.
The robbers took the victim’s stash of cash and fled south on Mission Street.
This isn’t the first incident where thieves have used pepper spray to rob in the city, said Albie Esparza, a San Francisco Police Department spokesperson, “But it’s not something that criminals use frequently.”
Pepper spray is categorized as a “less-than-lethal weapon.” That means shooting someone with pepper spray is less likely to kill than other weapons. Law enforcement often uses it to prevent crowds from rioting. Individuals carry it for personal defense.
The pepper-spray robbery was the first of three that happened in the Mission this weekend. The second occurred on Sunday at 1:40 a.m. on Market and 16th streets, when a man in his 40s grabbed a watch from the hands of a 52-year-old woman who was showing it to her friend.
The victim yelled at the thief to give it back. But he didn’t listen.
The third robbery happened later at 5:30 a.m. on 19th and Shotwell streets, when the thief approached a 24-year-old man and pulled out a knife.
He punched the victim multiple times in the head, grabbed his phone and fled the scene.
Police are investigating all three incidents, but no arrests have been made.
Free Farm Must Close, Greenhouse Needs Home
A three-year-old community farm in the Western Addition that distributes free food in the Mission and elsewhere is being forced to dig up its roots to make way for a church and a new affordable housing development.
The Free Farm’s founder Dennis Rubenstein, known as Tree and the man who also runs Sunday’sFree Farm Stand in the Mission, said the St. Paulus Church had been a “wonderful” landlord during the time he ran the farm on a third of an acre at Eddy and Gough.
That lot became vacant after a 1995 fire burned down the century-old St. Paulus Lutheran Church. The church has been operating out of a temporary site at 1541 Polk Street and is now ready to go forward with its plans to rebuild, the pastor said.
The problem Tree faces now is finding a new spot in San Francisco’s heated real estate market. Most immediately, he needs a lot where he can relocate the farm’s 60-foot by 20-foot greenhouse, he said.
“We’re trying to move to the Mission,” Tree said on Sunday as he worked at the Free Farm Stand inParque Niños Unidos on Treat Avenue near 23rd Street.
So far, however, none of the possible locations — including a temporary spot at 17th and Folsom streets — have come through. Like others fleeing high prices here, he may be forced to move the greenhouse to Oakland, he said.
Regardless, the five-year-old Free Farm Stand, which is also supplied by locals and other farmers’ markets, will remain open, he said.
The farm at Eddy and Gough has produced more than 10,000 pounds of produce from plant seedlings grown in the farm’s greenhouse and its sprawling outdoor garden, according to Tree.
On Sunday, some of those seedlings stood on a table at the Free Farm Stand for visitors to pick up. “We’ve been supplying seedlings and that’s how we have been trying to encourage” urban gardening.
Tree’s real estate troubles began last spring when church officials told him that the farm needed to move by September so that the developer could assess the property. That date was later pushed forward to January to accommodate the farm’s growing season, said Dan Soldberg, the church pastor.
“The life of the farm was always considered temporary,” Soldberg said. St. Paulus Church had always planned to return to the site to establish a home base.
Since then Tree has been working to find a new spot — most importantly, he said, for the greenhouse.
One idea was to move it to 17th and Folsom streets where the city recently went through a multi-year planning process to replace what has long been a parking lot with a community park.
The development of the park stalled this year because the city decided to first install a water storage system underneath the proposed park. The wet weather storage basin is designed to divert water during heavy rains. The latter often produces flooding in the low-lying region.
The planning and design process for the water storage system is expected to take one year and it is that year that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and Recreation and Parks are trying to fill with a temporary use, according to Jean Walsh, a spokesperson for SFPUC.
Once design is completed, any temporary use will be halted for the year-long project of installing the water basins. Afterwards, the permanent park will go in.
Over the summer, Tree submitted an informal proposal to the utilities commission, which is managing the installation project. He requested that the city house the greenhouse on the lot while he finds a permanent home for it.
“They considered my proposal,” Tree said. “They got back to me a month or so later and turned it down.”
No reason was given, Tree said. Walsh said Tree’s idea was one of many options the city is considering for the space. They are now also considering an idea from Rebar, a Mission-based design company, to install a parklet on the lot and build a space for food trucks.
“I believe we’ve moved away from the idea of a community garden on the site, although we haven’t seen a recent proposal and haven’t made a firm decision quite yet,” Walsh wrote in an email. Earlier she said that they had moved “toward an idea of a parklet.”
The city has allocated $70,000 from the department’s wet weather storage fund for whatever project they ultimately decide on.
Walsh said that Tree’s idea presented a problem because there is “no access to potable water to water a garden,” and they weren’t clear on who would manage it and how access would be made equitable.
The idea of a parklet and food trucks also raises questions, she said, adding that some people had “concern about food trucks” and asked questions such as whether a $9 burrito is “meeting the needs of low-income people,” and “is that accessible to the right audience?”
On the other hand, she added, “Some people love food trucks… I don’t know, we haven’t made a final determination.”
The decision, she said, would be made in consultation with all of the parties and she hoped that something would be decided by March.
A group called Amig@s of 17th & Folsom Park has formed against placing food trucks in the publicly-owned space, because that would only benefit people buying food and not the entire community, said Oscar Grande, a community organizer who works for People Organizing to Defend Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER).
Still, Grande thinks the park is not the right place for the greenhouse because it would only be a temporary solution, he said.
“What we really need to do is work with Tree and the community of volunteers to find a permanent space for the farm,” Grande said. “Otherwise we’ll be stuck in the same situation a year from now.”
Tree too would prefer to find a permanent home, but said the temporary nature of the 17th Street park would be fine and that the greenhouse fits the ultimate use of the park.
Tree fears that ongoing real estate speculation will make finding a permanent spot difficult. On the other hand, he also sees lots that have been empty for years.
On Sunday he pointed to a vacant lot at 957 Treat Ave., where small bits of land surround an old Union Pacific Railroad line between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street.
He has contacted the owners there, but Austin Fearnow, a property manager for Union Pacific Railroad, said the land couldn’t be leased because there is a question about who owns it and the property might be the subject of a lawsuit in the future.
“The railroad land would be ideal,” Tree said. “It would be a beautiful thing to have a greenhouse there.”
Other possibilities Tree mentioned include the lot on Alabama Street that is adjacent to Atlas Cafe and the lot at 1950 Mission St. that the Department of Public Works offered to Occupy SF in November, 2011.
If Tree can’t find a new home for the greenhouse in the Mission soon, he will likely give it away to friends in Oakland who plan to grow seedlings and share them with the community, he said.
While upset on Sunday, he also felt that his philosophy of urban gardening would live on and that something might work out. He explained his philosophy by saying that he knows gardening will not end hunger, but that he hopes his seedlings give people a start in something bigger.
“You can either whine or you can make a statement with your actions,” he said. “You can give people some help.”
Lydia Chávez contributed to the reporting.
Valencia Store Owner Finds Happiness on Mission St.
David Chen was four months from celebrating his furniture store’s 11-year anniversary on Valencia Street when his landlord gave him an early surprise: his rent would triple.
“We are a local small business,” Chen said shaking his head as he stood in his new space where a backless chaise lounge costs $475 and a minimalistic arm chair, $45. “We can’t pay that much.”
The increase would take his rent from $6,100 a month, which was roughly what he had been paying since he opened The Touch in 2002, to $16,000.
He clearly had to move, but in the realm of rising rent stories, Chen’s reads like a fairytale with a reasonable landlord and a soft landing on Mission Street.
Chen’s new landlord, a limited partnership named after the building’s address, 956 Valencia St., reduced the increase to $13,500, but that was still too high. As a compromise, the owner kept the rent at $6,100 a month until Chen found a new spot.
That happened nearly a year later in July, when Chen, an immigrant from China, discovered the 2,220-square-foot storefront at 2221 Mission St near 18th Street. It’s less than three blocks from the Valencia spot and smaller, but the rent is lower — although Chen declined to say exactly how much he paid.
Back on Valencia, it’s still uncertain what will happen to Chen’s old space. The storefront has been vacant since he moved out, but in September the city issued the building owners a $49,000 permit to renovate the store’s interior, property records show.
The landlords purchased the building—956-966 Valencia—in July 2009 for $4 million, according to the San Francisco Realtors Association. Before that, the building sold in August, 2007 for $4.2 million.
In addition to the retail store, the building has a restaurant space, which currently houses Mission Creek Cafe on the ground floor. The top two floors are residential units.
As for Chen, he’s already becoming a Mission Street partisan.Although the Mission shop gets slightly less traffic than the Valencia store, “it’s better than we expected,” he said.
Moreover, in the last two years more tourists that locals visited his store on Valencia and they would buy small things instead of the larger pieces, he said.
On Mission Street Chen sells primarily to locals.
He compared Valencia Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist street without a sense of community. That is not life, he said.
“On Mission you can go and buy a bunch of tomatoes,” Chen said with a laugh. “Over there, you can’t even find a tomato.”
San Francisco Evictions Up Sharply
While the eviction cases of artist René Yañez and the Lee family have underscored the pressures on San Francisco tenants, the numbers show that their stories have become increasingly common.
Trying to stay in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco is simply becoming more difficult and with real estate prices booming, that’s unlikely to change. Landlords have several legal means to evict tenants with deals and many are putting the measures to use.
Between March 1, 2012 and Feb. 28, 2013, the number of eviction notices filed with the San Francisco Rent Board jumped 26 percent compared to the previous year, according tothe board’s annual eviction report.
The largest increase was in the number of landlords invoking the state’s Ellis Act — a piece of 1986 legislation that allows building owners to evict tenants as long as they evict all of the tenants in a building and as long as they keep the apartments off the market for five years. This year, the number of Ellis Act evictions increased 81 percent from 64 households evicted to 116, the report shows.
More building owners are also giving people the boot because they want to move into their units. There were 185 households affected by so-called owner move-in evictions this year, or about a 46 percent increase compared to the 127 households evicted in the previous year.
Since 2011, about 8.7 percent of owner move-in and Ellis Act evictions were in the Mission District.
The number of tenants forcing out roommates is also on the rise with roommate evictions increasing 58 percent to 41 affected tenants this year, compared to 26 last year.
Meanwhile, there was only about a 17 percent drop in cases where tenants were evicted because they breached their rental agreement.
As more families are being evicted, more people are becoming aware of the trend.
This week the arts community has rallied around the Yañez family and a protest is planned for October 12. Last week the news was filled with the case of Gum Gee Lee, 74, and her husband, Poon Heung Lee, 80, who called their rent-controlled unit home for 34 years. The Lees fought being evicted under the Ellis Act, but so far have only been able to get a 10-day reprieve.
The couple organized a protest that drew the city’s largest media outlets and more than 100 housing activists. Yañez is in the process of fighting his eviction, but tenant advocates said there are few legal means to fight an Ellis Act eviction. After they have been served with an eviction notice, elderly and disabled tenants have one year to move out.
The New Yorker published a post on the general mood of helplessness at the San Francisco Rent Board, which fields questions from upset tenants facing eviction.
The recent media attention was enough to move Mayor Ed Lee to triple the amount of funding for eviction prevention services and release $700,000 from the city’s Housing Trust Fund on Monday to provide more counseling services to those facing evictions.
Click here to see a larger version of the Ellis Act map. To see a larger version of the owner move-in map click here.