Chapter 12

COVIDose: Whew, time out…gotta recalibrate, got to adjust…REBOUND, NOW…

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“You a landlord?

“Hardly…I mean, not at all…”

“Then you’re a tenant?”

“Uh, not exactly…”

“Which is it then?”

Boiling over…another burner to mind—this, with the clock winding down. So a panic-stricken process of elimination had eventually led me back downtown. Setting aside the Hassett business, I spent days to follow disassociating like a mad man around Pacific Heights in a reductive streetwalking daze; sleep was barely a blink of the eyes. Meanwhile, Norguard had emailed me a follow-up offer on a smaller, darker Delphoria unit for current market-rate rent of $1,450 per month and security deposit of $1,600. This for a closet of a room I’d actually taken when I first moved into the house way too many years before. Room #2 marginally passed the smell test back then, and this current proposition smote the senses on a number of levels, in a sinkhole of memories—to where I hesitated signing his acknowledgement sheet from the get-go, while cursing the godawful timing of this all.

“Uh, sort of a middleman, little of both…”

“Look, we have a office full of people waiting here,” he said, barely looking up from his thick stack of plaintive paperwork. So don’t go wasting my time with guessing games.”

“Last thing I want to do,” I replied, notching up the urgency, inching closer to the counter top for a look at the competition. “My situation is just a little complicated…”

“You’ve got ten minutes, go…”

At-will, lawfully removed: something about the whole termination action didn’t seem right, wasn’t exactly hewing to the facts, the loosey-goosey winks and nods as I recalled them. But a lot I knew about it, or anybody I knew knew about it, for that matter. Still, time was running out, my wi-fi was iffy and I hadn’t clue one where else to turn. So I burrowed into the Yellow Pages’ city directory, and then feebly GPSed my way into the activistic warren of San Francisco’s fair/affordable housing wars. I sucked it up and squeezed into a noxious and fully jammed MUNI bus down Van Ness Avenue, straphanging toward Civic Center Plaza. First stop: the majestic former Masonic Temple, a Byzantine iron and granite stronghold of city government offices near Market Street, and the Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board.

The San Francisco Rent Board was born in 1979, upon the failure of ’78s Proposition 13 to deliver on campaign promises to ease rents statewide—since landlords simply pocketed Jarvis-Gann’s property tax relief. Rent control was tasked from the outset to limiting rent increases and other reasons for mushrooming ‘Manhattanization’ evictions through landlord/tenant oversight and arbitration/ mediation hearings.

What’s more, poor and elderly tenants’ displacement from the infamous International Hotel in ’77, then the Tenderloin’s Dalt Hotel two years later, spurred a heightened groundswell of city outrage. Thousands of Single Room Occupancy hotels were either being demolished or converted into tourist lodgings, save for our inimitable Delphoria. Thus came a city-wide moratorium on hotel conversions (also in 1979); the Residential Hotel Ordinance banned them outright by 1981. RHO prohibitions grew ever stronger throughout the 1980s-90s: said to be the most successful land-use regulation in San Francisco’s history.

“Okay, I’m being terminated as resident manager of an SRO,” I handed him the notices. “And they’re even threatening eviction.”

“Hmm, you’re currently a manager.”

“Not anymore, I guess. And now they’re saying I’m not a tenant either…”

“Officially you aren’t, are you?”

So there I was, negotiating thick walnut doors, signing in at the lobby security desk, all but wanded for bombs and firearms. I clung to the railing of a bucking, thwacky walnut panelled elevator to the third floor, following sketchedarrowed signage through a series of Kafkaesque steel fire doors—doors I’d admittedly darkened before, albeit from another, middling angle—into room 320. Enter a cramped office reception area wall to wall with lease breachers, passthrough protestors, unlawful rent increase complainers and a range of current or pending evictees like me. Here was triage for city housing in perpetual crisis mode. I took a number like everybody else—checking out various guidance posters, tenant rights brochures and a corkboard of board meeting minutes and notices—eventually getting through to the front counter, and this harried, high foreheaded SFRB staffer named Joel Ray.

“Not right now, but I was—before I became manager. And I can’t see why if I’m not a manager anymore, why I can’t be a tenant again. I mean, rent control-wise

“Well, that could be a problem,” he looked up just long enough to work in a little facial recognition. “Come to think of it, haven’t I seen you in here before?”

“Uh, could be, I…” A stream of staffers caught my eye, as they scurried up and down a stairway to mezzanine work stations.

“Sure, you’ve been in getting updates every so often on rent increasing, and advice on what you called problem tenants…”

“Well, that was all in the line of duty then,” I weaseled, caught flat-footed by a presently higher authority. “You know, on orders from the man, the powers that be, believe me…”

“Okay, your ten minutes are just about up,” huffed Ray, officiously shuffling some papers my way, avoiding further eye contact. “Take these forms and fill them out, declared to the best of your knowledge, and return them to us for investigation.”

“Great, I’ll do just that.” I glanced at one two-sided sheet titled, ‘Tenant Petition’, another ‘Report of Alleged Wrongful Eviction’. “But you know, I’ve not exactly been evicted yet, I…”

“So file them if and when, and we will address your concerns,” he turned away to call the next number. “In the meantime, take our Referral Listing of helpful resources. You might need them with a peculiar situation like yours.”

A quick scan of the forms made me realize I had neither the time/standing nor information at hand to best fill in all the blanks. Besides, 320 presently afforded nary an inch of working space in which to write up my perceived wrongs. I panned about the room, jammed with poor crippled seniors, single multi child-bearing young mothers, fuming sisters from what remained of the Western Addition and their big, surly brothers, three generations of Latino families from the Excelsior, and disoriented Section-8 bounders with stun grenade eyes.

Spouting owners, crying babies, weeping widows, truants mouthing off—faces of exasperation, desperation: All were clutching their number slips with a tissue thin hope and prayer, some others pounding away madly at a bank of public computers. Needy as I may have felt, the need was far greater in here. So SFRB’s ticking wall clock told me it was best to take my petition sheets and hit the streets, poring over that referral listing like it held the long-odds possibility of a toll-free road to home.

sr dingbats

“Any just cause otherwise?”

“Not that I know of…”

“And it is your principal place of residence?”

“Nowhere else—for the moment, at least.”

I started out strongly, smoothly enough. Riding high on the Rent Board’s referral guide was San Francisco Tenants United, which is where I was soon headed aboard a Mission Street MUNI bus. Housed in an upright, tan-on-khaki stick Victorian off 16th Street, the T.U. had been fighting the good fight for tenant rights and affordable housing since 1971. I swung through a black iron gate, past a sprawling, prickly palm, up into a cramped lobby papered with fair housing organizing and mobilization posters, and community message boards. Luckily, only two clients preceded me on the drop-in line, beneath a large white wall arrow pointing toward the Tenant Counseling Clinic, emblazoned with United’s logo—a militant fist thrusting through a padlocked front door.

“What’s this sentence at the end here? Acknowledgment, understand the good cause reason for termination—you haven’t signed this BS, have you?”

“Uh, no, wasn’t sure about it, so I’ve been kinda dragging my feet…”

“Well don’t. It’s a death warrant.”

“B-b-but, what is it if I don’t?”

“It’s your line in the sand, that’s what.”

Fearless activism and advocacy, organized resistance—answering questions but not providing legal representation: Tenants United was all about defending the rights of renters against greedy and/or negligent landlords running afoul of rent control and a host of other San Francisco and California housing ordinances. With a little more luck, T.U.‘s chops may even have have included the odd lot SRO.

Before long, I was beckoned into the clinic by this stolid young volunteer attorney of Mimi Farina style and stripe. Her bright white office was mainly the Victorian’s former front sitting room: fireplace, high ceilings, plenty of painted over gingerbread, all business otherwise. I slid into an overstuffed easy chair, taking in walls filled with a gang of movement posters, ‘Direct Action against Gentrification’, ‘No Eviction without Representation’, ‘Ready to Fight for Affordable Housing?’, ‘Act-Up’, of that sort. After Kristen had fully examined the Termination Notices and I had added in the details of my situation, she leaned back in her creaky Herman Miller chair and faced me up with auburn, tight-curled authority, all clad in gypsy rings and raiment.

“You do have rights here, you know,” she said, with a shake-out of her lustrous head.“Been in the house over ten years, is that correct? Once a legal master tenant, always a tenant until move-out, far as I can see.”

“Actually way more than that,” I nodded, gazing past her through the parlor’s tall, narrow bay windows to a Mission District neighborhood awash in brilliant sunshine—whole place was feeling almost…homey.

“And you’re, what, over 60, I gather. That means you’re 60/10, a protected species as far as the city is concerned. That the place is a designated SRO doesn’t hurt your cause either.”

“Protected,” I absorbed that nugget like a B-12 shot, while noting a banner reading, ‘Building Tenant Power’ and a step-by-step poster for counteracting landlord unlawful entry or harassment.

“Now our counseling and case involvement addresses just cause and no-fault through pre-eviction threats, but not the official eviction notice itself,” she advised, removing her rainbow cheaters.

That’s what the Eviction Defense Collective is for.”

“But you think it won’t come to that, right,” I began slightly trembling anew, particularly upon spotting an Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, amply data visualizing dispossession of San Francisco residents—i.e., red pinning the eviction epidemic and corporate/real estate collusion.

“Which is not to say your situation is bulletproof,” she pulled a booklet and fresh sheets from among her desktop load of stacked manuals, code bulletins, civil procedure circulars and ballot initiative petitions, marking up the page with little red stars. “It does happen to be a bit more complicated than usual, but at least you haven’t been officially served yet. So study our handbook, keep a close eye on the calendar. And here, in case you may want a second opinion, our applicable recommendations. Let us know if you need any further pre-evict strategizing or negotiating tips—meanwhile, don’t go vacating beforehand.”

“Wow, how can I thank you?” I added their two-page referral list to my messenger bag.

“Sign up as a Tenants United member, Mister Herbert, or there is a donation box beside our sliding office door on your way out. Remember, this can happen to anyone these days. Good luck to you…”

I dropped a couple of crumpled dollars and floated out of T.U.’s Victorian like a sinking CEO with a golden parachute, thumbs-upping the wait line, even fist pumping the spiky palm. Always a tenant, far as she can see—protected, just like good ol’ Doyle. I instantly trusted Kristen, glommed onto her assertive positivity and righteous style, how she was advancing the just-housing cause—power to the people, right on!

Clear blue skies ahead, the Mission was colorfully beaming, Carlos Santana spreading San Francisco’s Supernatural spirit and here I was, a protected species firming roots, flexing seniority, no matter what. Still, a second look might be in order—far as I could see. Really, what could it possibly hurt… 

Care for More?

CHAPTER 13. A somewhat surprising
meet-up on the Barbary Coast, from
where a ship of hope looks to set sail…