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SAN FRANCISCO — About 75 protesters gathered in defense of tenants' rights Wednesday, as families facing eviction described hopeless feelings and health concerns resulting from stress over being priced out of the city.
The protest, led by a coalition including the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), was in support of residents of 521-523 Natoma Street, who say they were served with three days' notice to vacate their homes three weeks after Big Tree Properties, Inc. purchased the building in mid-March.
The evictions target three of the four units in the building, the residents of which declined a buyout offer, according to SOMCAN Organizational Director Angelica Cabande. The three units housed nearly 20 people ranging in age from 7 to 83 years old.
On Thursday, the first of the Natoma residents will begin the process of a legal hearing about the evictions, and Cabande said community members are preparing to be in court to show support. Future actions may also escalate to protests at Big Tree Properties’ offices, Cabande added.
Natoma Street is in the San Francisco's South of Market District (SoMa), one of many neighborhoods embroiled in what some call a “class war” as evictions of long-term working-class residents and construction of luxury condos have spiked in recent years.
Ernesto Bustos, 70, has been living on the property for 23 years. He is a Vietnam War veteran and receives dialysis three times weekly. Bustos lives with five adult members of his family, including two other seniors aged 65 and 63, the elder of whom is disabled.
“That was very distressing,” Bustos said of receiving the eviction notice, which he says was the first time he heard of Big Tree Properties as their new landlord. “My brother-in-law has since lost 20 pounds. I was hospitalized because of this, because of the stress and … all the thinking and sleepless nights that are happening right now.”
Another resident, 53-year-old Rebecca Lacap, has been living in the building, where her mother and son lived, on and off for 20 years, since she moved to San Francisco from the Philippines. Frightened by the eviction letter, she immediately left the home where she raised her children. Now she lives in San Pablo, adding nearly 40 minutes to her daily work commute.
“I felt hopeless when we received the letter. I raised my kids in this neighborhood. I watched my kids play in the streets and built a home. This is our house,” she said.
Lacap added that the eviction notice was sent to the family on Good Friday, when the landlord’s offices were closed for Easter weekend.
“Those three days brought a huge amount of stress with my family,” Lacap said. “For three consecutive nights I wasn’t ever to sleep because of the amount of worries: where would we live? Who would help us in a time of need?”
The youngest and oldest tenants facing eviction, 7-year-old Micah Abad and her 83-year-old grandfather Paquito Nacional, share a unit with Micah’s parents and 17-year-old brother. Her father, Robert Abad, said that the first grader is handling the threat of losing her home “like a professional,” while his father-in-law, who has lived in the building for 25 years, is visibly worried yet staunchly maintains that he will not leave his home.
Abad has managed to remain calm through the struggle so as to not worry the children, who are both enrolled in schools near the apartment, with Micah’s elementary just two blocks away. He said if they are forced to leave they will never be able to afford to stay in SoMa — they currently pay $1,047 for their rent-controlled four-bedroom unit; studios in the area currently run around $1,500 per month, and one-bedrooms are more than $2,000, Abad said.
Evan D. Matteo, a real estate agent for Big Tree Properties, referred all comments on the property to the company’s legal team since “the property is the subject of some litigation right now.” The company’s attorney, Steven Adair MacDonald, declined to comment on circumstances involving the property.
Jason Truong, an attorney helping the Natoma residents through Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, doesn’t know Big Tree Properties’ plans for the building, but he said the eviction of all the tenants except those in the fourth unit — who have only been living there for about two years — follows a pattern he has seen repeated throughout the city: long-term tenants with rent control are evicted, the rent is raised on the remaining newer tenants not protected by rent control, and the now-vacant units are rented out at a higher price.
“I can’t verify it, but you can read the writing on the wall,” Truong told Al Jazeera. “Typically it’s one of two things: If the plan is to empty the entire building, they’ll fix it up and sell it, as is typically done in San Francisco. If they just empty three, then they’ll probably be converted into condos and sold once they’re fixed up.”
The Natoma residents have managed to remain in their homes in the six weeks since the eviction notice was served, due to support from Truong’s legal group and community groups like SOMCAN. Many of the residents who are of working age are employed in nearby restaurants and hotels, Cabande said.
The Natoma protest follows a rally held at San Francisco City Hall on Friday that called for a one-year moratorium on new luxury condo developments in the city’s Mission District, the site of clashes between longtime residents and tech company employees over private buses and rental of public space.
In another move to slow rampant evictions widely viewed as profit-driven, San Francisco City Supervisor Jane Kim, whose District 6 includes the SoMa District, announced Tuesday that she will be introducing legislation amending the city’s Rent Control Ordinance to prevent landlords from evicting tenants for “frivolous” reasons like hanging laundry outside a window or storing a bike or stroller in the hallway.
Kim’s proposed legislation includes points that could have potentially helped the Natoma residents facing eviction. Landlords would have to file eviction notices in multiple languages; Truong said the three units only received notices in English when most of them primarily speak Tagalog. Tenants would also get ample opportunity to correct minor infractions such as painting a wall a different color. SOMCAN’s Cabande said the evictions served on Natoma listed breach of contract due to alterations made to the unit and “hoarding.”
“We’re going to make it really hard for them, and shame them for wanting to evict children and seniors and families,” Cabande said.