By Evan DuCharme
Homes Not Jails (HNJ) has fought diligently for two decades to shed light on the economic disparity that exists in San Francisco, where the number of homeless people would fit almost perfectly into the supply of vacant homes.
So on a cold Saturday night, April 3, as I sit shivering in the back of a van waiting for my group's turn to covertly enter a vacant house, I'm surprised at the calmness on some of the members' faces. This group of eight is planning to enter and occupy apartments at 572 and 572A San Jose Avenue. And while only a few have been through this before, the rest make up for their lack of experience with a passion for the cause.
Around 2 a.m., the group somehow manages to enter the building without being caught, but it's not easy. Between the drunken couple arguing on the street, the cops breaking up a bar fight nearby, and a neighboring couple who keep shining flashlights at the units, the group should never have made it in. But it does, and at the moment there's no time to dwell on luck because there's food and water to unpack, entrances to secure, and rooms to search, all while remaining perfectly silent and unseen.
Typically HNJ, a project of the San Francisco Tenants Union, conducts weekly searches it calls "urban exploring" in the hopes of finding useable vacant property to set up as a "squat" for people looking for a place to live rent-free. Every so often, its activism goes mainstream in the form of public occupations like this one, when the media is notified.
The immediate goal is to simply enter, secure, and occupy the apartment until noon the next day when a rally starting at 24th and Mission streets will march right in front of the building. Once there, they are supposed to let fly a couple HNJ banners while the rally outside features speeches, chants, and music by the Brass Liberation Orchestra.
But the catch is that the squatters cannot be seen before the rally arrives outside, otherwise their cover will be blown, they could be arrested, and the goal of shedding light on this waste of vacant housing will be ruined.
After attending HNJ meetings and events for a few weeks, I was allowed to follow the group into the apartment and report on their occupation from the inside as long as I protected the anonymity of those who wanted it. With that in mind, the group included Tim, one of the most experienced HNJ members; SFSU grad-student Aaron Buchbinder; Elihu Hernandez, a candidate for the District 6 seat on the Board of Supervisors; Matt, another experienced HNJ member; and local activists Carling, Scott, and a seventh member who asked to remain anonymous.
The building they targeted had strong symbolic value; it was where an elderly man was forced out by the landlord using the Ellis Act, which for the past decade has been the root cause of a large number of what the group sees as unjust and immoral evictions.
The Ellis Act was adopted in 1985 to give landlords the right to clear their rent-controlled buildings of tenants and get out of the rental business, expanding their previous rights to evict tenants through Owner Move-In (OMI) evictions, which allowed landlords and their immediate family members to oust renters.
Once a landlord invokes the Ellis Act, tenants in the building are given 120 days to move out, although seniors and those with disabilities must be given a year's notice. Tenants are entitled to almost $5,000 each in relocation costs, or a maximum of almost $15,000 per unit. Seniors and those with disabilities get an extra $3,300 each.