Largest rent control petition in San Francisco history denied, Midtown residents vow to continue their quest for justice

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by Adil Rysbekov, Midtown Tenants Committee

On a cold Tuesday evening, Sept. 15, Midtown residents along with their allies from labor unions, UC Berkeley, Boalt School of Law, The Plaza 16 Coalition, Calle 24 and tenants’ rights advocates gathered outside of the San Francisco Rent Board eagerly awaiting the appeal hearing. The decision was to be made on the rent control status of 65 long-term Fillmore District families who face immediate rent increases ranging from 30 percent to 300 percent.

More than 40 percent of Midtown residents fighting to Save Midtown are seniors; some lost their Victorians to eminent domain when Redevelopment bulldozed the Fillmore. Now they could be gentrified for the third time.
More than 40 percent of Midtown residents fighting to Save Midtown are seniors; some lost their Victorians to eminent domain when Redevelopment bulldozed the Fillmore. Now they could be gentrified for the third time.

Earlier this year, an administrative law judge rejected the second largest rent control petition in the City’s history, allowing the struggling tenants to file an appeal with the commissioners of the Rent Board. This is not the first time tenants had to do that; in 2014, the residents went through the process of rent control determination, but the commissioners told them to come back once the rent increase had actually taken place.

The rent increase happened and the resilient community is about to be torn apart in the largest flight of Fillmore – or Western Addition – residents since Redevelopment leveled their neighborhood, then known as “Harlem of the West,” forcing out more than 10,000 residents. Not willing to roll over, Midtown residents, along with their advocates, launched a massive campaign that consisted of letter writing, public rallies, picketing, City Hall actions and a Board of Supervisors call-in.

They’ve even gone so far as to organize the largest rent strike in San Francisco history since 1978, when a young Ed Lee organized residents of Ping Yuen public housing in his fight against the city.

During Tuesday’s rally, the picketers were able to share the story of Midtown with the engaged crowd on the busy intersection of Van Ness and Market. Cars and busses passing by emitted an endless stream of honks showing their support for rent control protection of San Francisco working class citizens.

Not willing to roll over, Midtown residents, along with their advocates, launched a massive campaign that consisted of letter writing, public rallies, picketing, City Hall actions and a Board of Supervisors call-in.

Longtime resident Mary Watkins scoffed back at the claims made in the press that Midtown receives rent subsidies. “We have never been subsidized. We’re working class people.” Indeed they are, this hard-working community satisfied the mortgage on the property in 2007.

Midtown tenants and their allies, including Boalt Hall law students and Mission tenants’ rights advocates Chirag Bhakta, Andy Blue and Erick Arguello, gather for the Sept. 19 rent control rally outside the Rent Board at Market and Van Ness.
Midtown tenants and their allies, including Boalt Hall law students and Mission tenants’ rights advocates Chirag Bhakta, Andy Blue and Erick Arguello, gather for the Sept. 15 rent control rally outside the Rent Board at Market and Van Ness.

Pat Smith, who raised two biological and six adopted children during her time at Midtown, also declined the label “subsidized housing” and recounted the time when Grammy award winners and prominent attorneys resided at the thriving apartment complex. It was the home of journalism legend Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, renowned publisher of the Sun Reporter. Community leader and labor activist Orville Luster served as Midtown board president for more than 10 years.

In a bad twist of irony, the seniors who came out to fight and make their voices heard at the rally should have been enjoying their golden years at Midtown as rightful property owners. It was the intention of Midtown creators that the property would go co-op once the mortgage is satisfied, but the decades long work towards that objective was halted in 2013 by Mayor’s Office of Housing. The Board of Supervisors supported empowerment for this working class community, most recently with Resolution 325-07, but has been unresponsive of late.

Unfortunately for the lively group, many of whom made emotional pleas during public comment at the board hearing, the determination did not go their way. The Rent Board rejected residents’ appeal, claiming that Midtown falls out of their jurisdiction. Some commissioners expressed their sympathy towards the tenants, wishing that they could help if only the Board of Supervisors changed existing law – others were less receptive.

“Our only option is to stay organized and fight – or organize our stuff in the back of the moving truck. We’re not backing down,” said Midtown Board Vice President Donald Grieggs.

For now, tenants are raising money for legal representation, as they have 60 days to file an appeal. The tenants are prepared for a long-haul fight in this ordeal, which began in 2013 when MOH Director Olson Lee terminated a four-decade-long lease between the City and the resident-operated non-profit board.

“Our only option is to stay organized and fight – or organize our stuff in the back of the moving truck. We’re not backing down,” said Midtown Board Vice President Donald Grieggs.

Learn more about Midtown and how you can help at the Save Midtown website, http://www.savemidtown.org , and Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/savemidtown. We welcome everyone to be a friend of Save Midtown, especially attorneys, law students, social justice and affordable housing advocates.

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