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The truth about the eviction of Iris Canada

February 12, 2017

by Jeremy Miller

One-hundred-year-old Iris Canada wants to live in the home she’s loved for more than 60 years – filled with 100 years of memories – in a neighborhood that not so long ago was solidly Black, now gentrified. – Photo: Josh Edelson, London Guardian

Iris Canada, a New Afrikan Queen and one of San Francisco’s few centenarians (people who have lived past 100 years old) has just been evicted from her home of over 60 years on the southern edge of the historic Fillmore district, now “Hayes Valley,” by Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. In a move that can only be construed as Machiavellian, the sheriffs arrived and changed the lock while Mrs. Canada was at her senior program! As of the date of writing it is unclear whether Mrs. Canada is even aware that said eviction occurred.

The eviction followed a court battle that began in the end of December 2014 and seemingly reached an icy conclusion three days ago when Judge James Robertson II ORDERED (the word order occurs capitalized four times including the title of the decision), under pain of being held in contempt of court, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy to execute the writ of possession (eviction) on Iris Canada.

Following Wednesday’s decision, I witnessed a very curious scene in the courtroom. In a hushed conversation, Suzy Loftus, former president of the San Francisco Police Commission and new assistant chief legal counsel for the law and policy team of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, discussed with Andrew Zacks, attorney for Peter Owens, the landlord, the desire to “keep this discreet.”

In a move that can only be construed as Machiavellian, the sheriffs arrived and changed the lock while Mrs. Canada was at her senior program!

Mr. Zacks then questioned Ms. Loftus about potential protesters, and they collectively came up with a self-serving premise that they could justify their “discretion” as being about the safety of protesters! I was able to question Mr. Zacks briefly after he left the courtroom and he continued the party line with the assertion that “Hopefully Mrs. Canada makes the right decision, for her safety and the safety of protesters.”

After Wednesday’s setback the community split between tensely waiting and strategizing for a hail-Mary move to keep Iris Canada in her home. Members of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRC) and Causa Justa/Just Cause (CJJC) as well as other tenant and human rights activists held a press conference Thursday afternoon to demand that Iris be allowed to stay.

A handful of well written preemptive news articles discussed the judge’s order and the moral bankruptcy of evicting a centenarian. Another handful of call-outs were made on various social media sites as well as by telephone to various housing rights activists to be ready to move. Despite this, no one anticipated the eviction to occur as soon as Friday.

What is really at stake?

“I welcome your comments, but I think we did the right thing.” This was the terse response from a cornered sheriff as she was bombarded by protesters and media outside her City Hall office following Mrs. Canada’s eviction. Standing beside her were attorney Mark Nico and a deputy sheriff. Another deputy posted up on the side just to maintain the status-quo image of authority.

This statement was met with outrage by those gathered, and indeed it is difficult for anyone with a heart to digest the construction of evicting a 100-year old Black elder as being the right thing. But it does beg the question: What is the right thing?

It is difficult for anyone with a heart to digest the construction of evicting a 100-year old Black elder as being the right thing. But it does beg the question: What is the right thing?

In order to adequately answer this question we must separate the wheat from the chaff, as well as the political questions from the moral ones. So far as I can see, there are five questions.

#1 What are Mrs. Canada’s rights to the unit at 670 Page St.?

Mr. Peter Owens, his wife, and his brother bought the multi-unit apartment building which includes 670 Page St. in August of 2002. By September of 2002 they notified the tenants, including Mrs. Canada, of their intention to remove the building from the rental market under the Ellis Act. By the beginning of 2003 all three of the other prior tenants had moved leaving Iris Canada as the sole tenant remaining.

Due to Mrs. Canada’s already advanced age – at the time she was 86 years old and had been living in the apartment since 1965 – Mr. Owens took pains for the next year to create an arrangement that would allow Mrs. Canada to remain in her apartment while still being able to follow through with his plans to convert the units into condos utilizing the TIC (tenancy in common) to condo-conversion framework.

Because this conversion could not occur while renters occupied units, Mr. Owens and his attorneys created a novel scheme, where they in effect sold Mrs. Canada her unit for $250,000 on a zero percent loan that she was required to pay back at $700 a month. This was rendered as a life estate and did not stipulate any probate rights, i.e. right to inheritance.

To the contrary, because Mrs. Canada was living on a fixed income it was stipulated that should she die prior to the completion of the loan – essentially mortgage – payment that this amount would be forgiven. Somewhere around 2012, the property became eligible for condo conversion. In order to do this, Iris Canada, as a deeded owner, needed to sign off.

Peter Owens was unable to get this signature and based upon other legal stipulations concerning the co-owners, i.e., the people who bought the remaining five units, was forced to enter into the present legal process of revoking the life estate. This is what led to the eviction. At any point in time, Mrs. Canada has been able to sign the condo-conversion papers and restore a modified life-estate agreement at no legal or financial penalty, with the landlord being willing to even forego a court ordered debt of legal expenses that ran over $100,000.

Peter Owens was unable to get this signature and based upon other legal stipulations concerning the co-owners was forced to enter into the present legal process of revoking the life estate. This is what led to the eviction.

The reason that she did not was first expressed in July of 2016, through an attorney of Iris Canada’s niece and caretaker Iris Merriouns, demanding that Mr. Owens sell the property to Mrs. Canada at a “fixed” below market value rate as a condition of signing. The only discernible benefit of this would be the property becoming inheritable.

In sum, Iris Canada does not currently have legal right to the property, although a moral and political position could be taken claiming that as a 100-year-old Black elder who is the last holdout in a gentrified historically Black neighborhood in San Francisco, there is an obligation against displacement.

#2 Is inheritance a legitimate position?

Short answer, yes. But this is legitimized by a discourse that has barely been visible and has only truly been articulated by POOR Magazine. The position would be that based on the intersectional factors of Mrs. Canada’s race, age and term of residence, she has the legitimate right to claim ownership especially considering that through collective rent – or “mortgage” payments, which she always paid, never having been in arrears, it could be construed that she has in fact bought the building!

It stands to reason that a true owner of the building, without any explicit stipulation to the contrary, should be able to leave said real property to her heirs. In addition, this would increase Black equity in San Francisco as a restorative move against the fact that San Francisco has the greatest expulsion and outmigration of Black people of any major city in the United Capitalist Prison States of America.

This said, the inheritance or, as I would frame it, revolutionary reparations argument, does not exist in current law and thus is entirely beholden to the will of the people and subject to our so-called elected officials. What is particularly troubling about Mrs. Canada’s case is the fact that outside of POOR Magazine, virtually no one has articulated this argument, preferring to couch the argument under a tenant’s rights framework, which has been essentially elided and/or exhausted. The liberal argument fails here. Only the radical truth continues to breathe.

#3 What can be done currently?

Mrs. Canada’s attorneys are allegedly working on an appeal of Wednesday’s decision. If adequately formulated and successfully defended, this could stay or reverse the eviction, though probably not indefinitely. Within the bounds of law, civil and criminal charges can be filed against various people: 42 U.S. Code § 1983 and its California corollary California Civil Code § 52.1 would suffice for civil action against the Sheriff’s Department for abuse of power and violation of civil rights at the federal and state levels respectively.

In addition, criminal elder abuse charges can be filed, as POOR Magazine has already attempted to do three times, as has Iris Merriouns. Under California Penal Code § 368, which deals with elder abuse, there are certainly arguments to be made that evicting a 100-year-old woman constitutes said abuse.

Here I would suggest including every single party to said eviction, including District Attorney George Gascón for his abdication of duty up till now in considering filing such charges. This could also be extended to the other TIC owners who allegedly have been harassing Mrs. Canada.

On the street level, people could follow the motto of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in upholding that “An unjust law is no law at all.” To this end, law aside, people could simply move Mrs. Canada back in.

At a less direct level, people should make it very clear to Suzy Loftus, Vicki Hennessy and Mayor Ed Lee that they do not buy the subterfuge that any of the city organs give two shits about protester safety and call out backdoor politicking as the corruption it is. More originally, the people could pressure currently sitting supervisors to pass a law that specifically demands the right of purchase at a fixed below market value price to any tenants who have lived in one place say more than 30 years, as well as another that expressly forbids the eviction of anyone over the age of say 70 for any reason at all, coupled with a further expressed and adequately penalized prohibition on age- or race-based rental discrimination.

On the street level, people could follow the motto of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in upholding that “An unjust law is no law at all.” To this end, law aside, people could simply move Mrs. Canada back in.

There could be a reparations law passed that also privileges and assists Black and Native people with the reclamation of said ownership. More specifically to this case, the Board of Supervisors could pass a symbolic resolution requesting that Peter Owens quit his interests in the City and not return, setting a clear line that says that San Francisco does not under any circumstances condone the eviction of a centenarian.

#4 Are Mr. Owens and his family nefarious?

Decidedly no. In fact, Peter Owens and his family have done more than most landlords in attempting to protect the residency of Iris Canada for years, and operating under the current assumptions of property and law have not been particularly abusive. The problem is that the laws and property relations themselves are genocidal. We cannot individually fault Peter Owens, who while existing in a white supremacist housing market, happens to be “acting white.”

#5 What does Iris Canada truly want?

This is the most important question of all. As has been articulated earlier, by signing the condo-conversion paperwork, Iris Canada could live out the rest of her natural life at 670 Page St. If she has taken the position of radical reparations and wants to stick to it, she could go down in history as a modern day Queen Mother Audley Moore, albeit possibly without being able to stay in the city.

This said, if Iris Canada is mainly interested in keeping her place to stay, and is being egged on by her niece Iris Merriouns to fight for inheritable property rights at the expense of her personal health and well-being, then Ms. Merriouns could also be guilty of elder abuse. We must get our answer from Mrs. Canada herself.

Centenarians are a very special population comprising only about a six-hundred thousandth of the population of the world. All of us must reaffirm our commitment to honor them, hold them, listen to them and protect them. And we must all do so regardless of the cost.

Jeremy Miller is co-director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation, part of the POOR Magazine family, member of the San Francisco No-Taser Task Force and a graduate of San Francisco State University. He can be reached at djasik87.9@gmail.com.

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14 thoughts on “The truth about the eviction of Iris Canada

  1. Jessica

    Iris Canada and her niece Iris Merriouns brought this entire charade upon themselves. For months, the owners agreed to completely restore Iris Canada's life estate after it was successfully terminated based on Iris Canada's failure to live there for years. In fact, Peter Owens and the other owners agreed to permit Iris Canada to remain there for the rest of her life, and only requested cooperation with the condo conversion which would have had absolutely no impact on her life estate whatsoever. Iris Canada, and her wardrobe of attorneys, all led by Iris Merriouns instead elected to use the condo conversion cooperation as leverage to force the owners to sell them the property for $600,000, funds that Iris Canada herself clearly does not heave. Their gamble was unsuccessful and now they have nothing. Iris Canada, Iris Merriouns and their attorneys have nobody to blame but themselves. This is 100% entirely their own making, and they desire what they get.

    Reply
    1. soro

      Jessica,
      you live in the building and your husband was one of 3 men bounding on Iris Canada’s door. When she had a stroke, I guess she brought that upon herself too. You or anyone else has the right to impede upon anyones rights. You believe your entitled to do sobreaking the law is stdill a crime and you are guilty of it elder abuse

      Reply
  2. Suzy Kendall Osborne

    “It stands to reason that a true owner of the building, without any explicit stipulation to the contrary, should be able to leave said real property to her heirs. In addition, this would increase Black equity in San Francisco as a restorative move against the fact that San Francisco has the greatest expulsion and outmigration of Black people of any major city in the United Capitalist Prison States of America.”

    Those saying that Ms. Canada brought this on herself are racist and need to look at what they are pushing for. The expulsion of the last of our black citizens. And elderly ones at that. It is not ok to keep pushing people of color out of the city because you want their property. This is monetary gentrification. Gentrifiers are racists, and you can try to justify it any way that you want to, but it’s even more racist than saying the N word, hypocrites.

    Reply
    1. zack

      Iris Canada does not own it. The bank did. Canada had a mortgage on it, did not pay, was foreclosed on and the new owners bought it. Canada refused to leave and after a PR nightmare played out on tv, the new owners were shamed into giving her a life estate for a crazy low rate of $700 (that is insanely low for that area, look it up).
      Canada owned it but re-mortgage it again and again. Never paying the balance off in the 70 years she lived there. So she never owned it, she rented with the option to buy as everyone with a mortgage does.
      -Not trying to be rude, just stating facts.

      Reply
      1. Don

        You're saying that Ms. Canada owned and remortgaged this property over 70 years? Every article I've seen relates that she's a tenant and paid rent over these decades. Not mortgage payments, but rent to the owner of her unit. Further, this article makes no mention of remortgaging or foreclosure, where are you getting this information?

        Reply
    2. Rpg bron

      But Iris did not own the property. She was only a tenant, renting her unit for the ridiculously low amount of $700 a month — in a city where the average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment is over $3,500 a month! The new owners agreed to allow Iris to continue living there for the rest of her life, at the same low price of only $700 a month, granting her a "life estate", meaning the property would revert back to them after Iris died. They also agreed not to go after Iris for the $100,000 legal judgement they had been awarded against Iris for their legal fees.

      Iris was not the one who brought anything on herself — but rather her greedy niece, who felt she should be entitled to her aunt's apartment after Iris died. She isn't, and that was never the deal! A "life estate" does not carry any inheritance rights, and aside from elder abuse, the neice's actions amount basically to extortion and theft.

      Iris's apartment is probably worth at least $500,000, if not far more, and Iris's rent of $700 a month doesn't even cover the property taxes, much less the mortgage! To say nothing of the insurance, maintenance, etc. Iris rent has NOT paid for that property, and her niece is not entitled to it.

      Reply
    3. Rpg Bron

      Oh, and FYI, this has nothing to do with racism, and shame on you for trying to play that card. The gentrification is all about money. Those who have it, and those who don't. That problem is not exclusive to San Francisco or blacks either. My family is from Manhatten, and after retirement, they didn't move to Florida because they wanted to, but they had no other choice. NYC is far too expensive on a fixed income, and they didn't get the protection of rent control.

      They're not black, and didn't want to give up the homes they had lived in all their lives either. Frankly, the real reason the cost of living in large cities is so much more expensive, is because that's where the majority of the better paying jobs are. If you are no longer in the work force, that reason for staying in the city no longer exists. So moving to an area where there's less job opportunities, but the cost of living is cheaper, only makes sense.

      I spent some time in San Francisco last year and saw plenty of homeless white people living on the streets too. Looked more like a drug issue to me. So you can stop playing that rac card, any time now.

      Reply
  3. lynne thomas

    So this is all about Ms. Canada's niece trying to "inherit" real estate her aunt never owned. That's not inheritance that's stealing. Shame on Mr. Merriouns taking advantage of her elderly aunt and getting her evicted.

    Reply
  4. zeke the geek

    To the author,
    When I started reading this article I thought you were a left wing nut that did not know the true facts here. I was wrong as your seem to know the facts and more than me. I disagree with some of your comments like how the Sheriff had a devious plan to evict Canada, but I love the last 2 paragraphs.
    Good article. I agree she should be protected but sadly she and/or her family never managed their money in a way that paid for the property fully and permanently.

    Reply
  5. Jessica

    Looks like the California Court of Appeals already rejected and denied Iris Canada's most recent filing from earlier this week. Hopefully Canada's family and legal team will finally make Canada's well being a priority and put an end to this charade.

    Reply
  6. Jackie

    "Right is right and right don't wrong nobody," as my great grandmother would say. There is something very wrong about this whole situation. As we all know, what is legal is not always moral. The heartlessness of San Francisco, glittering in the sun, yet so cold is evident by the proliferation of homeless people and especially elderly homeless people in San Francisco. Laws, policies and procedures are obviously askew or the ugliness of the gap between rich and poor would not be so extreme as evidenced by the people on the streets. So easy for ones to comment with such judgement, but may you receive understanding of how easy it is to be evicted without having to experience it.

    Should be noted Ms. Canada, a retired nurse, paid for her life estate. It was not given to her.

    Ms. Canada is in the hospital again as of 2/20. Her family was not allowed back into the apartment to get her medications. May God bless her to bounce back and have the health and lifespan of Moses.

    Truth be told, San Francisco, "The City That Can" could it not have come up with a solution to protect everyone in the case. Can anyone still sing "I left my Heart in San Francisco" without being overcome by the stench that has reached "High Heaven."

    Reply
  7. Don

    This is a thought provoking and multifaceted article, thank you. What is morally right and what is legal can often be miles apart.

    Reply
  8. soro

    Iris Canda was an owner on title. And had the right as an occupant to purchase, the TIC owners and Peter Owens lied on the application and said Iris Canada moved to Texas. Iris Canada wants to purchase her unit. Someone should ask her and stop pretending she doesn’t have a voice. Most of the comments are from the TIC owners who should be in jail for Elder Abuse. Can”t you see through this it would look crazy if they said Iris Canada couldn’t biy so they blamed it on the neice.

    Reply

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