Housing protest leads to takeover of duplex
James Temple, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010
(04-04) 19:06 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- A group of homeless people and housing activists took over a privately owned Mission District duplex on Sunday in what served as the climax of a protest designed to promote use of San Francisco's vacant buildings as shelters for the needy.
But the owner of the property - who was targeted over his eviction of a tenant - said the demonstration was nothing more than breaking and entering.
"It's not actually vacant. I use it for my own personal uses," Ara Tehlirian of Daly City said in an interview, adding that he was in contact with the San Francisco Police Department. "I know nothing other than my property was apparently broken into."
The takeover epitomized the tensions between property owners and tenant activists that have flared for decades in the city, and sometimes tip into outright hostilities near the peaks and troughs of the market cycle.
This time, more than fifty people marched in the rain through the Mission District, hoisting picket signs that read "House keys not handcuffs" and chanting "Whose city? Our city." The action was organized by Homes Not Jails, a 20-year-old group affiliated with the San Francisco Tenants Union.
By the time the tail of the procession reached the duplex on the 500 block of San Jose Street, at least eight people were inside, holding banners from second-story windows. It wasn't clear how they gained entry, and Ted Gullicksen, leader of the tenant organization, declined to provide details.
More than a dozen police officers were on hand, most standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Asked earlier whether they would take action if protesters occupied the property, officers declined to comment. One said, "We'll see."
By 3 p.m., all had left but one, who stayed to ensure that "nobody is out of hand," said a police official, Sgt. William Escobar. No arrests had been made.
Gullicksen said the protest carried important symbolism during a tough time for tenants.
Because of housing speculation during the real estate boom, "a lot of tenants were evicted," Gullicksen said. "Now a lot of those homes are sitting empty. The city should be doing something to turn vacant buildings into affordable housing."
Specifically, he said the city should foreclose on buildings where hefty back taxes are owed or use its powers of eminent domain to turn over long-vacant homes to nonprofit developers. The group is not advocating turning over the city's stock of new but unsold properties to the homeless.
Jose Morales, 80, lived in the San Jose Street building for 43 years before he was forced to leave in 2008 through the Ellis Act, which allows property owners to get out of the rental business.
Morales said he now lives in a small space in an office building in the Mission District.
"The city should have protected me," he said. "It's like they don't see me. It's like I'm a ghost to them."
But attorney Andrew Zacks, who represented Tehlirian, said the landlord resorted to the Ellis Act only after Morales remained on the property illegally, after being given more than a year's notice and relocation fees.
Zacks said he hopes charges are filed over what he characterized as "people taking the law into their own hands and breaking into property."
"It's sort of ridiculous to think that a private property owner like Mr. Tehlirian would have any obligation to house the homeless," he said. "It's a problem we should deal with as a community, not something that should be foisted on the back of a small property owner."
Gullicksen called it an act of civil disobedience.
"They can characterize it as an illegal act, but that doesn't mask the fact that the building has been sitting unused and that Jose Morales was evicted from there," he said.
About 5 p.m. Sunday, he said, police knocked on the door of the building and asked protesters how long they planned to stay. According to Gullicksen, they responded that they had no immediate plans to leave.