Chapter 14

COVIDose: Fillmore Street? Try Phantom Street, like a dystopian movie set two days after a shoot. I’m picturing lively street fair throngs, but seeing a Gatorboard jungle or desolation row. I mean where’s the action, Jackson Street on down?…So RELENT, go NOW…

__________________________

“They’re coming hard, are they?”

“That’s for sure.”

“And fast?”

“Way too fast, I’m afraid…”

Protection-plus in the ether didn’t square fully with facts on the ground. Hence, a second opinion was in order. I’d genuinely intended on ASAPing the manuscript in question, reacquainting with its loose-leaf pages, pulling together the raw materials, long buried notes and clippings that would set me to turning out whole chapters once again. But planted back in Delphoria—shuffling papers, pounding out keystrokes dead against the countdown clock and those termination notices sapped my bandwidth, choking off mind flow like secondhand cigar smoke. With even the remotest prospect of losing house keys and time of possession altogether, I felt an urgent need for some protective reaffirmation and procedural spellchecking. Hence it was back to the housing resource listings, which bought me to another advocacy group’s intake counter, to its volunteer counselor pro tem.

“Well, then we’d better take a closer look…”

“That’d be great…”

“But first, sir, several means questions.”

“Meaning…”

“About your demos, your personal status and resources, like that,” said the counseling director. “Standard stuff, to determine if you qualify for our services.”

“As in ways and means…” Here, the thinking went: when in doubt or desperation, go for a little obtuse resistance, wear him down, duck around his barrier, easy as line jumping at Starbucks or the Panhandle DMV. I thought I’d be shrewdly trolling for some third-party validation and confirmation, sure-handed rubber stamping of my domestic status as I knew it at the time.

Once again, it was down to the Mission District, just this side of 16th Street, into a cold concrete gray City office building, buzzed to the fifth floor via a scratchy call-up security phone. Figured I was playing with house money anyway, thus I saw this as something of a victory lap, my posture being rather cavalier going in. But then I spotted a stark black logo of shadows pushing back against a cityscape of housing injustices, was greeted by this stern gateway screener in a firebrand red T-shirt and cocked newsboy cap. Oops, my bad, wise-ass shame on me. So I instantly listened up in earnest, rear footed with a soft-story slackening of the spine.

“Says here you were provided unit #1 rent-free in exchange for your services as a resident manager—is this correct?”Damon Samarco noted, elbowing further onto the counter top, guns strategically tatted—eco-resistance wrists, forearms, on up to a hemp necklace inked red and green.

“Well, yes, far as that goes…”

“Terminated for cause, effective immediately, at-will employment, deal over,” he continued, paging through both notices. “You haven’t signed their acknowledgement/understanding clause, have you?”

“Not yet, I…”

“Good, don’t,” the counselor said firmly. “Now, you claim you lived in that unit as a legal paying tenant prior to this property manager arrangement. This is accurate?”

“Uh, not exactly…”

The Housing Rights Center was fervently left-of-lib in principle, while serious business in pavement practice. Hardcore affordable-housing hawks since the late 1970s, HRC was a bulwark against tenant mistreatment and landlord abuses city-wide. These street-smart staffers and volunteer activists offered free call/drop-in counseling on issues like rent increases, habitability, pass-throughs, lock-outs, HUD/Section 8s, security deposits, buyouts—not least looming displacement/evictions and the arcana of SROs. The screener and I went back and forth over demographic particulars—red flags and qualifiers, hedging and stalling. When I failed to furnish pay stubs, SSI cards, food stamps, or a current lease, we reached a sighing stare-down over the counter impasse, what with this tight triage reception area filling fast.

“Not exactly—what does that mean?”

“Actually, I had lived in a room down the hall when the previous landlord asked me to start taking care of the place. I’ve got rent receipts to prove it.”

“And that was when you moved into #1?”

“Pretty much, about the same time…” Nice momentary diversion: couldn’t help but pick up on the alternating KPFA and KRZZ La Raza salsa on the surround sound office FM.

“Uh-huh, well I’m not a lawyer myself, but it does look like that could be a problem,” Samarco said, reading further.

Thankfully, advanced age and VA ID had ultimately tipped the HRC eligibility scale, and I handed my termination notices to the harried screener. As he speed read the paperwork, I peered about pamphlet tables and thumbpacked bulletin boards of housing updates, workshops, conventions, community meetings and Tenant Together networking. The teeming, fluorescent office was fresh off anti-Ellis Act mobilization and Repeal Costa Hawkins demonstrations, rolled-up solidarity and tenant empowerment banners lining protest postered walls. A hive of peer counselors tapped and phone conferenced away beyond the counter, beneath photo blow-ups of tenants rights, Fair Housing protest marches, litigation sessions, rent parties, bullhorn outrage and sit-in chants. Seemed like if anyplace could afford me some righteous status validation, HRC be it. Then came this…

“Problem, how so?”

“Because they can say you never were a legal paying tenant in unit #1, that’s how. And you weren’t, were you?”

“Well, not precisely in those terms…”

“Okay, look, this is why they contend you are not protected by the San Francisco Rent Control law,” he rendered plainly.

“So what are you saying?” I tuned in keenly, trying to tune out the uptempo Beyonce and Selena.

“That this is an unusual case. You are sort of a gray area ‘tweener. Tenant or management—it could go either way.”

“You’re serious?” Foundation shaking, walls stress cracking, threatening to cave in, protection wearing thin.

“As a blown aneurism,” he handed me back the notices.“Meanwhile, you’re facing this hard eviction deadline. Got a plan B, another place to crash?”

“Not really, not at the…moment.” I was already watermarking them with the steam room sweating of my palms, even while I was shivering to the core.

“Then you’ll be homeless, am I right? You know, it can happen to anybody these days.”

“I guess you could look at it that way,” I muttered, panning all about the room.

“What other way is there?”

Other way? Had to be another way didn’t there? Yah, but wasn’t this just one man’s opinion—a radical one, at that. I couldn’t tell whether it was the aroma of reheated enchiladas or the Afro-Latin beat, but things were getting me real wobbly at the knees. Happen to anybody? I didn’t see myself as just anybody. And this was not a road I was at all prepared to travel, not at this time—hell, not at any time in recent memory.

How could I be reduced to being here, doing this, fishing for affirmation, reassurance that home stayed home, only to be anybody forced into anything less? Was that protective foundation actually crumbling; were my firewalls truly closing and caving in? Suddenly in such personal upheaval, would I be out at the curb with a mind drained of peace and prosperity, my worldly stuff in a heap? Feeling homewrecked and homesick at the very same time, I further fretted that this wasn’t part of the Master Plan, that the timing couldn’t have been worse. But naw, this had to be some sort of misreading, must be one man’s opinion, however straight-shooter street-wise that it was.

“You tell me,” I said, folding the notices into my Timbuk2.

“Point is, we can only help you so far at this stage,” replied Samarco, handing me the HRC reference sheet, along with several topical brochures and his business card. “If they do trigger the eviction process, you should meet with the Eviction Defense Collaborative. In any case, you may want to consult one of these attorneys on this ASAP, because your landlord has already got his lawyer’s meter running.”

“Trigger…ASAP…”

“Just remember not to sign that bizarre acknowledgement…and make sure to fully understand your rights. Also let us know if we can help you any further.”

“My rights…right on…” I replied dazedly.

“Come again?” Counselor Samarco was already deep diving into the next case up.

“Thanks, I might just take you up on that…”


sr dingbats

“You been served?”

“No, don’t think I…”

“We can’t really help you ’til you’ve been served.”

“But wouldn’t that be a bit too late?

“Just come back to us as soon as you’ve been served.”

Cling to the initial opinion, question the second: maybe a rubber match was the best bet, seek out a tie-breaker third. That was my frantic, free-fall rethinking on the way back down to Mission Street. But from on out HRC’s door, the thought process was more of a blur. I noted this SRO Collective on the resource sheet, so called from the vestibule, getting a phone tree, leaving a rambling message on my plight for an unlikely callback. From there, I hit the street up Mission for yet another nondescript gray modern office building, the elevator of which opened to a fourth floor aclamor, albeit in an orderly way.

For over 20 years, the Eviction Defense Collaborative had been the go-to source for low-income San Franciscans facing eviction lawsuits and notices to vacate. Its mission was to prevent homelessness and preserve affordable housing—not to mention the city’s diversity in an ever-tightening housing squeeze—empowering the desperate poor through equal access to the law. The wall banner read, ‘Healthy, Affordable Housing is a Human Right’, so EDC even provided monetary assistance for back rent and displacement costs, while spearheading ‘Coming to Agreement’ settlement negotiations to bypass court actions altogether and keep people housed. But apparently I wasn’t desperate enough quite yet.

I’d lined up amid a roiling mass of more likely drop-in clients, who were clutching notices, frantically waving vacate orders in the air, making themselves heard in a multitude of tongues. Young mothers, old connivers, wheelchair-bound panhandlers, worked-over streetwalkers, whole nuclear families, brutally crippled bangers, brothers in needle pointed arms; they passed along their hard-luck and sob stories in Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Many were more Latino and African-American than not, plenty of colors, salsa and dreadlocked rasta, wrapped in layered rummage, robes and rags. Some were busted in deteriorating physical and mental health, others victimized by pitiless or petty crime—shrieking infants and weeping elders in straits grievously more dire than mine—painfully, humiliatingly so. The EDC waiting room was ministering to an epidemic of searing need, and I felt like a hangnail whiner in an intensive care ward.

My name was eventually called, however, and I was led into one of EDC’s counseling cubicles by a volunteer third-year paper chaser on the legal treadmill, CVing up to the bar. It was on the leading edge of a battery of young lawyers, intake coordinators and shelter client advocates busy advising needful clients and preparing answers, conducting research and discovery, hammering out pleadings, demurrers, fee waivers, stays, motions to quash or strike. Distressed, overanxious clients riveted on their assigned paperwork sherpas, folded documents in lap. Legal formatted computer screens fluttered, copy machines scanned and hummed away, all the way back through long rows of hard-copy file cases. I was greeted by a plainly cheerful staff attorney with flipped brunette hair and big eyeglasses, poring over a fat, double fastenered manila file folder of case proceedings with a Sharpie highlighter. She was Hastings with honors, a sharp, hard grinding veteran of San Francisco housing wars who quickly assessed my deteriorating status, finding I was a bit ahead of the legal scenario.

“Yeah, served up—like on a poison platter.”

“Call it what you will. Sorry we are unable to resolve your particular manager/tenant termination issues, but can certainly help should you receive a summons or complaint for Unlawful Detainer. Although of course we do hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“B-b-but if it does?”

“Just be sure to properly prepare your answer—you will have only five days to file it with the courts, or will lose your case by default,” she smiled, patient as a surgical nurse, before returning to her two-inch, thickly overturned file folder.“In that case, you’re encouraged to come back ASAP. We can guide you through the process. Oh, and you may want to consult with a recommended tenant/landlord attorney on your manager termination issue. Best of luck to you, Mister…Herbert, is it?”

sr dingbats

“So it’s just that we haven’t come across a case like yours before, not being able to tell if you aim for remaining a manager or becoming a tenant. Once you flesh that out, maybe we can be of more help. In the meantime, thank you for calling and all best to you…”

“R-r-right, thanks…” CLICK.

The SRO Collective callback came mid-stride. I had ducked into a nearby Peet’s for a Major Dickason’s and some wi-fi, combing the tenant/landlord attorney referral list and making some lubed-up calls to any housing activists, insurgents, revolutionists and socio-agitators that would listen. Still, responses to my downer elevator pitch were varied but primarily unavailing: With clients, In court, On vacation, Not taking new clients now, Swamped, jammed, Call back next week, Sliding scale, Hourly fees. I was draining the bottom of my coffee cup and timing out on my window table when I got a nibble from this firm north of the slot, over on right proper Montgomery Street, and grabbed a tourist-packed former CTA torpedo trolley up Market for yet one more assessment.

A furtively put-off receptionist ushered me into an eighth floor conference room, where Daniel Kalford, Esq. soon sat in. After laying out my situation yet again—it was getting stale as my breath and stifled acidic belches—I glanced about walls of colorful framed fabrics and modern art prints. A large, voluble man in middle-age baggy Brooks Brothers, long specialized in habitability, discrimination, landlord harassment, Rent Board hearings and wrongful evictions. This initial consultation was a freebie, and after studying my documents and evidence, he rendered judgment.

“This manager/tenant thing,” he pulled off and tissue cleaned his chained readers. “You did in fact change units upon taking the manager position. So, frankly, it’s a 50-50 deal if you ask me…”

“Fifty-fifty,” I nodded, fidgeting in my well-cushioned, middle back tilter chair, backing away some from the long walnut conference table. “Even with the rent receipts…”

“The issue is, did you relinquish your rent control rights when you moved. They will fight you on those at-will/compensation grounds, although I will have to look further into this Chan case. But if you go after them and lose, you could be on the hook for their court costs and whatever damages are determined.”

“Really—how much…”

“Don’t ask, but hefty four figures on up,” Kalford advised, stacking my paperwork, sliding it back my way. “Now, I can’t counsel on any employment issues. I believe, however, that your best bet is going the wrongful eviction route…”

“But I haven’t been evicted yet…”

“And you don’t want to be. Unlawful Detainers are nasty business, for employment prospects, credit scores—all the way around. No, you have to meet their deadline and vacate the property on their terms. Then we can sue for wrongful eviction—your chances are better there, and the winnings or settlement could be substantial, indeed.”

“You mean move out completely?” I began sweating bullet points. “The deadline’s next Tuesday…”

“Well then you’d better get packing, Mister Herbert, every last thread, keep me posted on pilgrim’s progress,” said the attorney, rising to shake on it and hand me his card. “And I caution don’t sign anything, just get the hell out ASAP. We can discuss our case and terms from there.”

“Will do, Mister Kalford, thanks so much for your time.” Terms, he says, I’ll just bet. I leapt to my aching feet and re-packed the papers. ASAP, ASAP, ASAP, I thought, as he lead me out of the conference room, handing my off with a nod to his now smiling receptionist. I was a sap alright, for getting myself into this goddamn protected-less mess in the first place, no matter what…but that was just one man’s opinion…

Care for more?

CHAPTER 15. Intertwining cases threaten to
 make a basket case of a certain person, but then
another may come to help disentangle them…