The story of artist David Brenkus, a Duboce Triangle resident since 1981, getting evicted by the family of deYoung Museum curator Emma Harshawat (née Acker) is obviously an irresistible one for both sides of the debate over Ellis Act evictions and rent control. On the one hand, you have a guy who's lived in a place he loves for over three decades, making not much money and paying incredibly low rent, who doesn't want to move and feels some natural ownership of the space he's invested his own funds in fixing up and repairing over the years he apparently has a workshop he built out in the basement, for instance. On the other, you have a family with some money who bought the building at 53-55 Walter Street two years ago who have offered a pretty generous sum to this longtime tenant and his roommate to move out, as has become customary in no-fault evictions. After he refused that, they've invoked the Ellis Act in order to evict him, which legally is their right and this cuts to the heart of the most sensitive battle being waged in corners all across the city right now, and over the last several years, which is landlord vs. tenant.
It is often a battle being waged between a new landlord and an old tenant, and as C.W. Nevius suggested in his characteristically exasperated way last week, the Harshawats are now being "bullied" by Brenkus, who is promising to continue bringing anti-eviction protesters to their door so long as they're trying to kick him out (though he has, allegedly, "hint[ed] he’d listen to a higher offer" than the $80,000 relocation allowance the Harshawats have already offered).
Brenkus and his roommate together pay $735 a month for their rent-controlled, two-bedroom flat in what's now a highly desirable neighborhood, and Nevius is, rather meanly, quick to pick up on eviction lawyer Andrew Zachs's characterization of Brenkus as not much of an artist, and basically just a loafer without a steady job.
Arguing for Brenkus's side of this is former Bay Guardian now 48 Hills editor Tim Redmond, who attacks Nevius for his tone and for his attempt to justify a landlord's rights in this case. But while Nevius might be a bit cavalier about the value of tenants' rights, Redmond is equally iffy about the law.
In San Francisco, when you rent an apartment, you can stay for as long as you continue to pay the rent and abide by the terms of the lease. A tenant does, in fact, have a right to live in a place forever (not given by God but by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and mayor), and can only be evicted for “just cause.”
The fact that your rent is way below “market-rate” is not a just cause. The fact that your landlord could make a lot more money by getting rid of you is not “just cause.”
The Harshawat family - Ish, Kavi, Paras, and Roompam - bought [53-55 Walter St] for about $1.3 million, city records show.
That, to say the least, was a huge bargain. The place needs work, but part of the reason it sold so cheap was that it was occupied by long-term tenants.
In San Francisco, when you buy a building, you don’t just get to throw all the occupants out. You are informed by the seller what the existing rents are, and if those numbers don’t pencil out, you can pass on the deal.
Redmond is correct that they could have passed on the deal, and about the fact that the building was probably a steal because of the tenant issue.
But the thrust of his piece is essentially that all evictions under the Ellis Act are suspect and should be illegal. And while the Ellis Act has certainly been abused recently, this doesn't appear to be a case where that is true. Ultimately, it is the law whether we like it or not, and Brenkus is likely to cave and take a buyout, or he will get evicted sometime next year.
There is one factor, though, that Nevius glosses over and Redmond picks out: Why are the Harshawats invoking the Ellis Act, which is sure to be more expensive for them, rather than doing a simple owner move-in eviction? They claim, as Nevius says, that they're intending to move Ish Hershawat's parents into the first-floor unit (which is already vacant), and move his brother Kavi into the top floor.
But the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, and Redmond, may be right to question that narrative given the Ellis Act thing. The anti-eviction activists have researched the Harshawats and reveal that the grandparents, "Dr. Paras Harshawat and his wife Roopam Harshawat are owners of their own private for profit psychiatric hospitals in the Midwest." Ish and his brother are called "tech entrepreneurs," but Kavi, according to LinkedIn, just took a job in D.C. at the Department of Veterans Affairs eight months ago. As Redmond writes, "Unless he’s about to quit that job, he isn’t about to move into a place in San Francisco."
So, it's possible that the Harshawats do have other intentions for the building. Emma and Ish have a newborn baby. They're currently living in the middle unit, and are probably likely to stay a few years lots of parents opt to move outside the city once their kids hit schooling age, but who knows. And perhaps the Ellis Act move is their way of avoiding legal action if they decide to move out or if the family members don't move in, or if they want to flip the top-floor unit, where Brenkus lives, into a TIC, which they would be allowed to do, and which could possibly almost pay off their mortgage.
They could also be telling the whole truth, and they're intending to keep the place in the family, and that's within their rights too.
Feeding so much of this tension across San Francisco is the fact that we have all this small-scale real estate from another era, in small buildings of under five units, that lends itself to flipping by speculators or owner move-ins, when larger apartment buildings do not. The expense and logistics of evicting people and turning TIC in a 30-unit building, for instance, doesn't seem likely to happen outside of Nob Hill and even in the case of that building, 1100 Sacramento, which became SF's most expensive TIC in history, the legal headaches for the developer have been considerable, and probably aren't even over. So while I'm fully in favor of protecting the city's rental stock as much as we can, this story just points again to the bigger issue of the city's sore lack of denser rental housing, where turnover and the economics of owning more units offers more protection for long-term tenants' below-market rents your $400-a-month steal doesn't hurt anyone's bottom line as much when they've got ten units turning over every year and rising to market rate.
And while all this sucks for Brenkus, and while some protests are likely to continue because of the deYoung curator irony, he may have to suck it up and take the money and run, like many people have in the last few years. Will he ever find a place for $365 a month again, though? Nope.
Update: Ish Harshawat has responded with some clarifications, and explains why they invoked Ellis rather than do an owner move-in.