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15 tenants face unusual eviction in Bayview

July 26, 2017

City crackdown on illegal units could cost vulnerable veterans their homes

by Tim Redmond and Sana Saleem

John Brown in his living room: He didn’t break the law, but he could wind up losing his home. – Photo: 48 Hills

John Brown walks slowly up to his second-floor apartment, but he doesn’t ask for help. The 68-year-old Vietnam vet and former firefighter is happy in his one-bedroom unit in Bayview; it’s small but comfortable, clean and tidy. He has his own kitchen and bathroom with excellent plumbing, there aren´t no clogged pipes thanks to Curl Curl Plumbing. “I wish I had more closet space,” he tells us. But that’s about the only issue.

Most of all, it’s stable. With a federal voucher covering his rent, and a modest income from social security and a veteran’s disability payment, he’s able to take care of himself.

It wasn’t always this way: After 18 years in the Fire Department, he lost his job and his home to crack addiction. For 10 years, he struggled with drug abuse, winding up in the VA hospital and a string of group houses.

And now, clean and sober, he’s at risk of losing his home. It’s an odd situation: Brown has no problem paying the rent, he’s not violating his lease, he gets along fine with his landlord, there’s no Ellis Act or Owner Move-in taking place. The building hasn’t been sold.

He’s facing eviction because his apartment was built illegally – and now the city is cracking down.

Brown’s landlord is Judy Wu. She bought the Revere Street building where Brown lives at the height of the foreclosure crisis; she also bought 11 other buildings.

Brown has no problem paying the rent, he’s not violating his lease, he gets along fine with his landlord, there’s no Ellis Act or Owner Move-in taking place. The building hasn’t been sold. He’s facing eviction because his apartment was built illegally – and now the city is cracking down.

According to a suit filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Wu illegally cut up those single-family homes with 15 legal units into small apartments, creating 49 units. Most of them, the city attorney says, are rented to veterans, and Wu is collecting nearly $1 million a year in federal voucher money.

The complaint says that the buildings are overcrowded, and Supervisor Malia Cohen has complained about trash and parking problems. All of that is probably true – there was, in fact, quite a pile of trash out in front of 1315 Revere when we visited.

Still, the Housing Rights Committee says it’s unfair to evict the tenants, many of whom might wind up back on the streets.

Wu is asking the Planning Commission for permission, under the city’s in-law legalization law, to bring one unit per building up to code. But that still leaves at least 15 units in limbo.

The Housing Rights Committee says it’s unfair to evict the tenants, many of whom might wind up back on the streets.

According to the Planning Department, they have to be demolished. The tenants are appealing the demolitions to the Planning Commission, which will hear the case Thursday, July 27.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, an organizer with HRC, told us that even if Wu did convert the units illegally, the tenants did nothing wrong. “Why in the world would the city be demolishing 15 rent-controlled housing units?” he asked.

Mecca told us that the city has promised to try to find replacement housing, but that might be in SROs – a step down from individual apartments, no matter how small, with full amenities.

The tenants are appealing the demolitions to the Planning Commission, which will hear the case Thursday, July 27.

Brown, who grew up in the Western Addition, told us he’d spent enough time in group housing and doesn’t want to go back. He’s looking around – but there’s not much available in his price range.

“Section 8 housing is hard to come by,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

He also told us nobody from the city had contacted him and he wasn’t sure what was going to happen or where he would wind up.

City officials say they don’t want to reward Wu for her illegal conversions, which makes perfect sense. Herrera is, of course, just doing his job by suing a scofflaw and enforcing the city’s existing planning and zoning laws.

It is worth noting, though, that the city allowed Airbnb to violate planning and zoning laws for years before retroactively legalizing short-term rentals – rewarding a big company for lawbreaking. The city allowed Uber to violate the city’s transportation laws for years, rewarding what is now a giant corporation for its lawbreaking.

City officials say they don’t want to reward Wu for her illegal conversions, which makes perfect sense. Herrera is, of course, just doing his job by suing a scofflaw and enforcing the city’s existing planning and zoning laws.

The city allowed Google and other tech companies to run buses illegally parking in city bus zones for years, rewarding those companies for their lawbreaking.

We are not fans of landlords who violate the law. We are not trying to argue that all of these units are code-compliant, and nobody should be living in unsafe conditions.

“So make her bring the units up to code,” Mecca said. “Make her take care of the garbage problems. But don’t evict the tenants.”

That’s what’s before City Planning Thursday.

“So make her bring the units up to code,” Mecca said. “Make her take care of the garbage problems. But don’t evict the tenants.” That’s what’s before City Planning Thursday.

UPDATE excerpted from “Bayview tenants get eviction reprieve” by Tim Redmond: The Planning Commission voted unanimously to delay action on the demolition of the apartments. Supervisor Malia Cohen asked the commission for a continuance.

There is at this point no comparable affordable housing for them, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, an organizer with the Housing Rights Committee, told the commissioners. The tenants all have federal housing vouchers, and it’s difficult to find landlords who will take them.

Several of the tenants of buildings owned by Judy Wu, who bought the properties during the foreclosure crisis and converted them – illegally, the city says – from single-family homes into small apartments, spoke to the commission. Every one of them said their homes were in good condition, with kitchens and bathrooms, and that Wu was good about maintenance.

Mecca pointed out that, whatever Wu’s legal problems, “The tenants did nothing wrong. Let me repeat that: The tenants did nothing wrong.”

One tenant said that he shouldn’t have to suffer because a building owner created his apartment without permits and cut a single-family home into more units that the law allows. “If you want to fine her, then fine her,” he said.

Journalist Sana Saleem is a staff reporter for 48 Hills, where this story first appeared. 48 Hills was founded by Tim Redmond, longtime executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the City’s premiere alternative newspaper for decades.

One thought on “15 tenants face unusual eviction in Bayview

  1. laluchasegue813

    As of today's date (8/19/17), does anybody know what the status is with the Planning Commission? I just visited their website and checked out the agenda 8/24/17 meeting, but I did not see 1351 Revere Avenue on the agenda. (It appears that meetings on 8/3/17, 8/10/17 and 8/17/17 were canceled)
    Yes, the City Attorney's Office will go after relatively low-hanging fruit– e.g., Judy Wu– even while much larger operators– such as long-time slumlord Robert Imhoff (the deceased Iris Canada's former landlord) or hydra-headed mass-gentrifier Wedgewood Properties (accused in 2015 by the Bureau of Real Estate of major fiscal improprieties that would have lost a small-time player their real estate license) somehow remain untouchable. Can you say ultra-plutocracy?

    Reply

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