Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tenants Bite Huge SF Landlord Back

From Daily Kos

Picture this: You've lived in a rent-controlled apartment for many years. Your apartment is one of several in your building. None of the units are in very good shape, but the rents are low and kept that way by the city rent control ordinance.

Maybe you haven't moved to a better apartment because you're poor, because you have a sick parent, or because you're disabled. Maybe you're an undocumented immigrant or couldn't pass a credit check for a new unit. Maybe you're simply happy in your apartment. It's been your home for a long time.

Jenna is a tenant similar to those I've just described. She's poor. She's the sole caregiver for her elderly, disabled mother. Half of her time is spent finding services for her mom; the rest of her time caring for her. She and her 72 year old mom are good tenants.

One day last year, she heard pounding on her front door and the words, "Welfare, checking on Lily!" Startled, she opened the door to find two large men, dressed in black, SWAT Team-like jumpsuits with handguns holstered at their hips. She began shaking. She let them in.

Xavier and his wife are Latinos who have lived in this country for many years, most of them in the same run-down Mission District apartment. They received a visit from men dressed in suits with badges shortly after CitiApartments bought the building in which their apartment is located. The men muscled their way into Xavier's apartment asking for passports.

The men weren't from the state. They weren't from welfare. They weren't from the INS. They were thugs hired by their landlord, CitiApartments, San Francisco's second largest property owner which controls thousands of apartments in this city. And these tenants weren't experiencing anything novel or new - scores of other CitiApartment tenants have had the same or similar experiences.

Twenty three tenants from seven different CitiApartment buildings filed an unprecedented lawsuit against their landlord this week alleging their landlord is using strong arm tactics to get rid of tenants who pay low rent. They and their attorneys hope this lawsuit will put an end to a pattern and practice of terrorizing tenants out of their buildings in order to maximize rental profits. As reported in Beyond Chron, the lawsuit alleges a host of other behaviors as well:

*Sending large men wearing military fatigues and carrying concealed weapons barging into units and videotaping tenants
* Verbally harassing, threatening and abusing tenants
* Interrogation sessions that often involve an attempt to coerce tenants into signing an agreement to vacate their unit
* Illegal construction, often designed to cause tenants discomfort
* Changing locks and not providing tenants with new keys
* Interfering with caregivers who provide assistance to senior and disabled tenants
Alan Kaufman, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he witnessed many of these tactics first-hand after Skyline [CitiApartments] purchased his building.
"The whole place changed after they took over," said Kaufman, who lives at xxx Bush Street. "We had no problems at all, then suddenly we had these thugs - big guys in suits - lumbering around our halls, intimidating people. One of them showed up to my neighbors place in a combat outfit with a gun."
The effect of these tactics, said Kaufman, was immediate.
"People left the building in droves," he said.

CitiApartment's behavior has come to the City Board of Supervisor's attention as well:

Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors, has called for a hearing into similar allegations by tenants in buildings managed by CitiApartments. Peskin said he receives numerous complaints from tenants of CitiApartments' buildings every week.

San Francisco Chronicle

Why They Want To Get Rids of Their Tenants

Here's a little background: San Francisco's Rent Ordinance controls rent increases and protects tenants from bad faith eviction. If a landlord buys a building occupied by tenants who are paying less rent than the landlord wants, he can only evict them for one of the "just cause" evictions listed in the Rent Ordinance. Not because their rent is low.

If a landlord is caught acting in bad faith, the Rent Ordinance mandates treble damages against the landlord. However, some landlords, like CitiApartments, take the risk that vulnerable and frightened tenants won't know their rights and will not defend themselves against unjust evictions.

What They're Doing to Chase Out Tenants

CitiApartments and it's alter-identity corporations own over 300 multi-unit properties in San Francisco and operates under as many as 50 corporate names. Their employees include "enforcers" - large men who claim to be current or former law enforcement officers -- and staff lawyers who spend a great deal of their time pursuing evictions against CitiApartment tenants.

CitiApartments, also known as Skyline Realty, Prime Properties, Bay Citi Properties, Trophy Properties, among other names, typically buys a multi-unit apartment building and immediately "scopes" out the tenants. Some tenants report that CitiApartments strong arm their way into the unit with video cameras under the pretext of attending to a minor repairs. Some tenants report that someone has been in their apartment while they were at work. Some tenants report seeing CitiApartment agents opening the common mailbox attached to the wall in the entry way. Many tenants report CitiApartment agents showing up in fatigues, or SWAT Team like uniforms, or dressed like FBI agents wearing badges and name cards; sometimes these enforcers carry guns. They pound on the tenants' door and claim to be police or Homeland Security, or some other government agency. Passports are demanded, mail is mysteriously rifled through, unauthorized videos and photographs are taken. They claim tenants who have lived in the unit for years are there illegally and threaten eviction.

After scaring the hell out of the tenant, they ask for personal information about the people living in the unit and about their neighbors. The say they are watching the building, watching their neighbors, watching them. And they are.

Within a couple of weeks, the tenant is asked to come to CitiApartments for an interview with their landlords. Once there, they're placed in a room with one of the landlord's enforcers. The tenant is not allowed to have anyone there for support or translation. The enforcers suggests that they could get in trouble with immigration or the police or the federal government for this or that infraction, or that a caregiver is illegally living there and subjecting them to eviction for an illegal roommate, or that they've discovered that someone not originally on the lease is now living in the unit. They mysteriously have information about the tenant's personal life: divorces, marriages, former lawsuits, or that they receive benefits of some sort. They paint a threatening picture of legal action. They tell the tenant that this can all be avoided if they move. They'll even give some relocation costs and some time. The tenant is frightened and under duress signs an agreement which purports to waive any rights they have under the Rent Ordinance. If they don't agree to move, the harassment, the illegal entries into the unit, the telephone calls, the illegal attempts to evict continue.

These actions are alleged in the lawsuit as reported today by The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, and Beyond Chron (Although why Beyond Chron is showing an accompanying photo of the Federal Court in SF is Beyond Me.)

The lawsuit claims Citi Apartments sent a company official and often "large men" -- sometimes in military fatigues and carrying concealed weapons -- to apartments to harass, yell and videotape tenants who lived in rent-controlled units. The men said they were security guards, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, in some instances, the men told tenants they were in violation of their rental agreements and then threatened eviction unless the tenants attended a "meeting" arranged by Citi Apartments at their office. At those meetings, tenants claim Citi Apartment officials interrogated them in a manner similar to police TV shows and often recorded the sessions. They demanded personal information such as immigration status or tried to coerce them to sign agreements to leave their apartments.

In other cases, Citi Apartments interfered with caregivers that provide assistance to seniors and the disabled, changed locks on buildings, negatively altered the lease terms without providing a reduction in rent, and held tenants' rent for several months and accused them of not paying rent, according to the lawsuit.

The San Francisco Examiner

Of course, CitiApartments denies these accusations:

Citi Apartment officials denied any wrongdoing.

"We engage in absolutely no illegal tactics [to encourage people to move out] whatsoever," said Jonathan Siegel, attorney for Citi Apartments.

The San Francisco Examiner

Why does CitiApartments want to rid themselves of these tenants? The answer is simple mathematics.

Say a tenant is paying $800 per month for a two bedroom unit they've occupied under rent control for many years. If the landlord can get rid of the tenant and fix the unit up, they can rent the vacant unit for, perhaps, $1800 (although that's low for a SF two-bedroom these days). That means the landlord makes $1000 more per month, $12,000 more per year, $60,000 more in five years (not counting rent increases) if that rent controlled tenant is muscled out of the building.

Now take those figures and multiply them by the number of apartments owned and controlled by San Francisco's second largest landlord (We're talking over 300 multi-unit buildings).

That's right, ridding yourself of a long-term, rent controlled tenants has multi-million dollar possibilities.

Full Disclosure: I am one of the five attorneys in this lawsuit and one of many other tenant activists San Francisco who are and have sued CitiApartments. This lawsuit has a goal: Stop these practices once and for all. Keep San Francisco's most vulnerable tenants safe.

What San Franciscans Can Do

If you live in San Francisco and want to show Supervisor Peskin that you support a Board of Supervisor's inquiry into these practices, here are his staff email and office phone.

Let them know you support stopping jack booting tenants out of their unit. Tenants and activists will be picketing CitiApartments/Skyline Realty Headquarters at Church and Market tomorrow at noon.

I have been practicing tenant law in this City for 10 years. I can't tell you the number of calls I've gotten from CitiApartment tenants frightened and desperate to stop this constant harassment. To a one, these tenants have been either disabled, elderly, poor or all these things. I've never written about housing struggles in our city, but I plan to post more diaries about what it means to be a vulnerable tenant in one of this country's most expensive cities. I want the City of San Francisco to join in our fight and hope you do, too. If you live in San Francisco, contact Supervisor Peskin today.

Update: I changed some tenant names to perserve some semblance of anonymity and edited out a home address. I know it's in the links, but I have a thing about posting personal info.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Bush in Trouble

This remarkable photo of George Bush appeared in the April 7 Winston-Salem Journal. I can't find a better version of the photo and will update when I find the name of the photographer. I'm preparing for trial tomorrow and have to post this during a break.

Credit aside, the composition and content of the photograph amazes me. Gone is the George Bush one step removed from chawing on a straw of hay; gone is the fratboy smirk at the podium. This is a photograph of a president under attack. Arms holding microphones, belonging to the press, push at him, drawing the eye to his central figure. The disembodied arms appear to belong to two white women, a man of undetermined race, and a black man, in other words, a cross section of America.

The president himself appears to be trying to protect himself or trying to surrender, hands up. His expression dismayed. In the background, Air Force One is pointing down, seeming to emphasize Bush's downward spiral in the polls and in the nation's collective consciousness. The white part of the plane's fuselage appears as a knife or a finger pointing at him. The downward appearance is made more so by the gangplank, at the bottom of which are two uniformed military attendants facing away from Bush. With the most recent news of leaks of Bush's Iran plans from the Pentagon, I don't think you could invent better symbolism of the military turning away from Bush.

I found this photo in a diary posted by Al Rodgers on The Daily Kos. It's a remarkable image.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Interesting Harris Photo

I'm no expert at photo analysis, but I thought this photo of Katherine Harris in the March 27, 2006 Orlando Sentinel begs some discussion.

Never in my memory has a candidate been so self-aware of her physical attributes and here, as the lighting and the shirt amply display, she holds herself as if to be appreciated: one arm behind, posture erect. She's physically playing to both the camera and the men behind her. More interesting, however is the arrangement of those men (maybe supporters). None of them look particularly happy, the men on the right might be staring at her breasts, and the man behind her seems to be grimacing. My favorite is the white-haired gentleman in the tie and yellow vest in the back on the right. He seems one stepped removed from putting his head in his hands. All the onlookers appear to be more clued into the serious situation that is the Harris campaign while Harris herself appears defensive. She of the youthful torso is becoming she of the haggard demeanor: eyes tired, face lined, mouth uncertain. And what is she doing with her other hand? It appears that she is positioning herself for the camera as if her only asset must be displayed and projected. If ever a photo pronounced the end of a campaign, this one looks to be the messenger.