The steps up to Sarah Johnson’s apartment are decorated with sand dollars that she collects, often on walks with her grandson. Inside, light streams into her living room, which she likes, because it makes her feel almost like she’s outside.
Johnson, 68, has lived in her one-bedroom apartment near San Francisco State’s campus for four years, but she might lose it soon. After her retirement last year as director of the Early Childhood Education Center at San Francisco State University, where she worked for 26 years, she is facing eviction from the university’s employee housing. The notice came in the mail four months after she retired: She had to move in 60 days.
She says she is shocked.
“Employment was never mentioned as a condition of my rental agreement,” Johnson said. Through the housing office, she was able to work out an extension for 10 months, but her time is up in May.
This comes as San Francisco State — which has had employee housing for about a decade — is struggling to house its students, the university says. Ann Sherman, the interim vice president and chief financial officer at San Francisco State, said 3,000 students are on the wait list for campus housing every fall.
“Our primary priority has to be our students,” she said.
The university said in a statement that as a way to free up room for students, it began telling tenants seven years ago that they would need to maintain an “active affiliation” with the university to stay in campus-owned buildings. They’ve also been raising rents for staff and faculty as a way to free up room for students.
Starting last July, rent hikes for staff and faculty could be up to 5 percent annually, because the university is exempt from local rent control laws. The university says that the housing for faculty and staff averages 15 percent below market rate.
Michael Bar, a professor of economics who is leading a campaign against the housing policy, said four retired faculty and staff members are facing eviction. Sixty-nine faculty members and 66 staff live in 121 apartments near campus, a university spokeswoman said.
Bar said he regrets moving into his apartment now. “Housing choices in a rent-controlled environment are irreversible,” he said. “Back in 2005, I missed some opportunities to rent somewhere that would stay below market rate.”
Though university officials say the local rent control exemptions have been clearly communicated, professors said they weren’t properly notified about the change in policy. Bar called the school “deceptive” and said it was a single opaque clause in his contract that he didn’t read when he renewed it. For years, his rent had been increasing the same amount allowed by rent control ordinances.
Another professor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the administration, said that when he was hired in 2016, he was lured by the promise of rent-controlled housing. “I got explicit promises that we would have below-market rent and rent control in my negotiations,” he said.
As for Johnson’s eviction, Sherman said she was given ample notice.
“I would say she’s had a year to find another place to live,” Sherman said.
Johnson feels insulted by that logic after 26 years at the school. “I raised more than $7 million in grant money to provide for child care stipends,” she said. “I feel like I helped build this university. I feel hurt and shunned.”
She’s single and retired, and she can’t afford the market-rate rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco. She doesn’t want to move from the city, as one of her sons and her two grandchildren are all here.
She also loves where she lives. She keeps a collection of birds’ nests on a glass shelf. Giants memorabilia and bobbleheads are scattered throughout the room. And an entire corner of her apartment is devoted to kids’ toys, many of which she saved from her days working in early childhood education for her grandchildren.
“I don’t know what my next steps will be,” she said. “I don’t want to end up out on the sidewalk.”