Mission eviction leaves activists without a home base

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Housing activists turned up outside the office of landlord Rick Holman earlier this year.
Photo by Eviction Free Summer

Mission residents who abruptly lost their battle against eviction Aug. 27 were given one last chance to retrieve belongings from their loft before their locks were changed by the landlord and sheriff. 

The group of artists and activists occupied a 5,300 square foot space on the second floor of what’s known as the 17 Reasons Building, located at 3265 17th Street. They had been tipped off that the eviction might take place yesterday afternoon, after a request for a stay was denied during a morning visit to the courthouse. They headed straight home from there.

When they reached their loft, tenants Chema Hernández Gil and Alisha Pelton encountered an eight-officer sheriff escort with the building’s owner and a locksmith. “Do we have a chance to take our stuff out?” Hernández Gil asked the sheriff’s deputies, as he photographed the scene.

An officer permitted the pair to enter the unit for one minute to collect essentials. For everything else, they would need to contact the landlord within 15 days to arrange a time for pick-up.

Pelton’s sixty seconds were spent retrieving a small bench, a pot, and kitchen utensils. Gil emerged with a bicycle fork and a wooden poster for Food Not Bombs, a volunteer movement that provides free vegetarian meals to the hungry. Hernández Gil feared that much of the food left behind in the space, which served as the organization’s cookhouse, would spoil in his absence.

The eviction has been pending since the building was purchased by Rick Holman, head of Asher Insights, for approximately $16 million in early April.  Not a week passed, according to Hernández Gil, before Holman made moves to evict the group, comprised of several collectives including Food Not Bombs, In the Works, and Rincon. “He’s told other tenants that the square footage is worth three times what we’re paying,” explained Hernández Gil.

Chris Cook, an organizer with tenant-activist group Eviction Free Summer, said “from the start, since [Rick Holman] bought this building, he’s made it clear that his intention was to get rid of folks that stood in the way of making this the profit center that he was hoping for.” Holman did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment.

Holman’s eviction notice cited breach of lease for “unpermitted subletting,” but Hernández Gil said the building’s previous owner had authorized the arrangement for two years. At its peak, roughly 16 tenants were using the space, half of which was available as a venue for free community events.

In the months following the filing, however, the tenants’ ranks had dwindled. Over the summer, they faced harassment from their landlord, who changed exterior locks without notice and posted security guards requiring a California ID for access to the building, effectively blocking entry to residents from out-of-state.

“What’s infuriating to many of us in the community,” argued Cook, “is that many landlords are seeing that it is okay to just uproot people and totally disrupt their lives … This is something that has a concrete human impact.”

Eviction Free Summer activists held a rally on Tuesday night in support of building tenants. A Facebook posting for the event, which floated the question “Is Thrift Town Next?” caused a bit of a stir online, prompting a response from Thrift Town’s President and CFO, Lane Steinmetz.

In an August 28th letter posted to the group’s Facebook page, Steinmetz said the store had “just signed a renewal agreement for five more years,” and that it has “been very pleased with the actions by our new building owner to improve the safety and security of [the] property.”

“We don’t have any problem with [Eviction Free Summer’s] message. We just don’t want to be looped in on it because our lease is secure. The landlord’s been fair and good to us,” co-owner and Vice President of Marketing for Thrift Town, Wendy Steinmetz replied when the Guardian asked for clarification. She said references to Holman’s improvements were not related to the eviction.

Hernández Gil asked sheriff’s deputies at the scene why he hadn’t been served with the advance notice mandated by law. Officer Miramontes said he didn’t know the specifics of the case, but commented that evictions like this have been on the rise. The Sheriff’s Department, he said, oversees 20-25 actions of this sort per week.

The only formal 5-day notice came on August 7, but that eviction was postponed when a September 18 hearing was scheduled for the tenants’ relief of forfeiture action. Gil didn’t expect another attempt before then. The group’s legal team has been particularly concerned with minimizing disruption to one tenant who has advanced AIDS and is unemployed. As of yesterday, he is also homeless.

“By evicting tenants for profit, speculator landlords like Rick Holman and his wife/associate Toby Levy are playing a truly destructive role in the community. There has to be a social and economic price for landlords who do this,” Cook said. “Holman, Levy and others cannot pretend to care about this city and this community and then uproot people like this and effectively boot them out of the city altogether given how utterly insane rents have become.”

Several other tenants met up with Hernández Gil and Pelton as they exited through the rear of the building onto Capp Street. The group, lead by Hernández Gil, wheeled two shopping carts of possessions southbound to the San Francisco Tenants Union headquarters, where they planned to evaluate their options.

Meanwhile, Pelton loaded her few salvaged items into a ZipCar and wondered how she’d gain access to the rest of her belongings. “We’ve been locked out for months and months at this point, why should we believe the landlord will let us in now?”

When asked where she was headed, she offered up what’s becoming an all-to-familiar last resort for displaced San Franciscans. To find something affordable, she said, “we had to move to the East Bay.”

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