Tales From The Evicted

Local Group Brings Stories of Jilted Renters to LifeFrancisco Romano pays $750 to live near Dolores Park, but it might not be for long. He is being evicted. A data-driven advocacy group, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, is releasing his story and dozens of others in mid-March as part of an oral history of those evicted in the city.

 

 

 

 

A middle-aged gay man with AIDS who survives off of disability payments is now counting the days until his eviction court date. He fears it’s only a matter of time.

 

An elderly woman — a lifelong nurse who has served in nearly every San Francisco hospital — now faces a similar fate inside her decades-long apartment with her husband, a veteran of the Korean War.

 

These two are among a mass whose stories have fallen through the cracks. In an urban scene powered by tech money, venture capital and exorbitant real estate, speculation-based evictions are driving a wedge between the old images of free love and the new reality of pay-to-play where a one-bedroom apartment can go for $3,500 per month. Evictions are the new norm, and while some tenants under rent control opt for a mandated buyout or even an under-the-table negotiated settlement to relocate, others have elected to fight the legal battle to keep their rent-controlled units.

 

On the edge of Dolores Park, 51-year-old Francisco Romano and 74-year-old Lotta Garrity represent those fighting to hang on.

 

“San Francisco has changed but I feel it’s my home. I have my friends and my medical support here. It’s the only place where I can live and talk about everything that’s going on with my life,” says Romano, who points out that people living with HIV/AIDS without stable housing are five times more likely to have their life expectancy drop. “If you are homeless, you can’t shower or go to the bathroom when you want. It’s very stressful.”

 

For Garrity, who pays $829 per month for a four-room flat on Guerrero Street that she says could go for $5,000, the clock is ticking. She and her husband have already been served an Ellis Act eviction and will be presented with an unlawful detainer notice by the end of March. She said there is still a chance to have the eviction thrown out of court, but after three decades in the neighborhood, she and her husband are now coming to terms with painful exit strategies.

 

“We are not poor — we have some money — but it’s not going to go very far. Our costs are going to jump. We are going to have to pay $25,000 more a year just to stay in town,” she said. “I signed up for the lottery for that low-cost housing. But chances are pretty slim.”

 

Romano and Garrity are not the same. He’s a lodger renting a room in his landlord’s unit and she is a longtime tenant under rent control. But they are both being removed. And they are not alone. Many others are currently being displaced and each has a story to tell. But instead of fading away into obscurity, the stories of those displaced by gentrification will become public in March thanks to a new project by the volunteer advocacy group, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. By collecting the audio histories of roughly 40 people evicted from all parts of San Francisco and plotting them on a map, the group has created a living archive that documents the granular level of neighborhood-by-neighborhood evictions.

 

This map shows the eviction of seniors and disabled tenants over the last three years. Red bubbles show evictions enacted by serial evictors — landlords or speculators that have Ellis Acted more than one property. Of Ellis Act evictions filed in 2012, 71 percent were against a senior or person with disabilities.The Narratives of Displacement Oral History (NDOH) project consists of roughly 40 audio recordings of first-person eviction experiences in San Francisco. Many of the stories, which are up to an hour long, come from the Mission and Castro neighborhoods. The idea behind documenting the voices is to create discussion around the evictions in the city to shed light on the wider political economy, according to Erin McElroy, founder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

 

“We’re always working against the clock. We are in the midst of what people call hyper-gentrification, whereby evictions are happening too quickly to combat in their entirety,” she said. “Small businesses are going under left and right as rents go up and as new gentrifiers don’t frequent local shops, so we’re losing people that way too. Once people lose their homes or sources of employment in the city, they often lose the city as a home altogether since rents are too high.”

 

A dozen volunteers have worked for a year to put together the oral history project, enlisting the help of university students. McElroy, a current doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz and trained cultural anthropologist who has documented forced evictions of Roma communities in both Romania and Northern Ireland, said 16 students in a University of San Francisco urban politics class paired up to interview tenants, edit and transcribe the interviews and take photographs.

 

She said the NDOH project will be online by mid-March for public viewing at www.antievictionmappingproject.net, which features a host of other data-driven graphics on its site ranging from a “Dirty Dozen” list of the biggest evictors in the city to the loss of the Bay Area’s black population from 1970-2013.

 

Volunteer Karyn Smoot, who joined the project last year, said producing the NDOH took an untold number of emotionally involved hours. More people are becoming familiar with the issue of no-fault evictions, she said, but in order to understand extent to which people are affected by gentrification, it’s important to hear personal accounts directly.

 

“Something that people in the project have asked me to think about is the disappearance of stories once someone is evicted and displaced to another city, county, state,” Smoot said. “I think the idea for the oral history project came from wanting to bring humanity to the little dots on the eviction map and to share the experience of talking to actual residents to remember and learn from the stories that are actively being lost through this process.”

 

San Francisco is losing 650 units of rent-controlled units every year on average, according to Jennifer Fieber, one of the organization’s principal contributors who worked on a report commissioned by Tenants Together regarding Ellis Act reform. This state law allows owners to trade a payout of more than $5,000 to relocate a tenant in order to go out of the rental business. Ellis Act evictions require a one-year notice for senior or disabled tenants (120 days for all others) and are often used by landlords to convert rental space to condos, TICs or luxury homes. She said it surprised her how 51 percent of new owners used the Ellis Act within the first year and 78 percent within the first five years.

 

“It had always been a theory that the Ellis Act was being used for speculative flipping rather than its stated purpose of getting out of the landlord business,” she said. “But when we calculated the period from purchase to Ellis, it became really apparent that the Ellis Act is overwhelmingly a tool of speculation and not an escape hatch.”

 

Fieber also said she was shocked to find that 71 percent of tenants removed by the Ellis Act in 2012 were seniors or people with disabilities.

 

“That is really tragic, and heartlessly cruel of the new owners,” she said. “What kind of society chooses to protect ill-gotten profits over our elders? It’s not like the city has set up other options for our elders who contributed so much to the city.”

 

State senator Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco, has recently proposed a bill to the California Legislature to make Ellis Act evictions illegal in buildings that have been owned for fewer than five years. The idea is to cut down speculative buying and flipping at the expense of ousting renters. Leno introduced a similar bill last year that passed the Senate only to get killed in an Assembly committee by one vote.

 

Meanwhile, Lotta Garrity and her husband, Lucky, pore over their options. Having already sought the help of a number of pro-tenant organizations, they saw the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s oral histories as something of greater importance for the community at large.

 

“I wanted the story to get out,” she said. “All kinds of people are getting it and that needs to get out there.”

 

As for Francisco Romano, who fears a possible reality of sleeping on a friend’s couch, or worse, in a shelter, he participated as something of a last-ditch effort.

 

“I’m really hoping for a miracle,” he said.

 

Photo: Ted Andersen / Graphic courtesy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

 

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