Throwing senior citizens out on the sidewalk is never a good idea, but it isn't stopping North Beach developer Peter Iskander. He served eviction notices to four elderly tenants on Greenwich Street in March. And now that they haven't moved, he's gone to court.It's unconscionable, unreasonable and stupid. Mostly stupid.
Imagine the sight of Carlo Tarrone, who is in his 70s and uses a walker, and Sandy Bishop, who is 70 and has lung cancer, forced out of their homes.
"I can't even find a place to live because I don't make enough money," Bishop said. "Maybe I should just stay and let the sheriff carry me out."
That sound you heard was newspaper photographers and TV cameramen all over the Bay Area cheering her on. Carried out by the sheriff? What a great photo op.
It's all perfectly legal, sleazy as it seems. Under the Ellis Act, a statewide law, landlords have the right to evict tenants if they take all the units in their building out of the rental market. The landlord can then convert them to condominiums or tenancies in common units, which is what Iskander wants to do.
The problem in San Francisco is that to convert a tenancy in common unit to a condo, you have to win the annual conversion lottery, which allows only 200 conversions this year. San Francisco law specifically says that evicting "a senior, disabled person or catastrophically ill tenant" makes you ineligible for the lottery. If you're scoring at home and considering the age and condition of the tenants in Iskander's building, that's strikes one, two and three.
"You can't convert to a condo, you can't refinance," said the tenant's attorney, Steve Collier. "At some point you kind of ask, why?"
'A disturbing trend'
Iskander's attorney, Paul Utrecht, says the tenants received "generous" offers from Iskander and they have countered with "outrageous" demands.
It's no way to run a business. But it also raises a larger question. Is this the only way to create housing the average San Franciscan can afford to buy?
"We have seen a disturbing trend in recent years of seniors, the disabled and families being put out of their homes," said Supervisor David Chiu, who represents the district. "At the same time, we would like to provide a path to ownership for tenants."
The solution begins with stopping lamebrain evictions like this. Not only are they morally indefensible, they hand hard-line tenants' rights organizations an issue.
"This is right out the playbook," said Mike Sullivan, co-chair of Plan C, a middle-of-the-road activist group that supports condo conversion. "Any time there is one of these awful-looking cases that tugs at the heartstrings, they publicize it and say this why we need to change the laws to protect the tenants."
Certainly protecting tenants is fine, but Sullivan has statistics from the San Francisco Rent Board that show that the number of "no fault" evictions - meaning the landlord evicts a tenant, but not for something the tenant did - have plummeted. In 2001, there were 1,332 in San Francisco. In 2010 there were just 197.
At the same time, Sullivan says, applications for the condominium lottery have more than doubled, up to 2,309 this year from 994 in 2002. So even though there is pent-up demand for conversions, it hasn't resulted in more evictions.
If that's true, maybe it is time to start looking at ways to get middle-class buyers into San Francisco real estate. Mayor Ed Lee is looking at a one-time "condo bypass," an idea floated by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2010, where tenancies in common residents could pay a large fee to be allowed to convert to a condo. No one would be evicted, and the cash-strapped city could gain millions in fees.
Another plan is "fractional" mortgages for tenants in common. Rather than the old model where everyone in the building is part of a large single mortgage, each unit would have its own mortgage, making it sort of a pseudo-condo.
Work on those ideas instead of singling out disabled senior citizens. Tarrone, who has lived in his apartment for more than 40 years, says he actually owns a nearby unit. But now that he's being evicted, he will have to tell his renter to leave so he can live there.
"It's not easy, and I feel sorry, but we have to do whatever we can," he said.
At least he knows how it feels to be evicted. You have to wonder if Iskander can say the same.
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