Inside the squat - Page 2

Homes Not Jails seizes a vacant apartment that was recently an elderly man's home

Elihu Hernandez, a supervisorial candidate who took part in the squat, listens to Jose Morales give a speech about being evicted

After the building is vacated, it is usually taken off of the rental market for at least five years. During that time, the former tenants retain the right to reoccupy their old units at their original rent for 10 years. If the building is re-rented within five years, the landlord can only charge what the previous tenants were paying. These restrictions are attached to the deed and apply to subsequent property owners as well.

Although the restrictions were meant to discourage the eviction of tenants from rent-controlled units, they also have encouraged some property owners to keep buildings vacant while they wait for property values to increase or to re-rent their units at higher prices. If the landlord wants to convert, remodel, or add any additions to the property, they still must seek the city's approval.

This landlord power is the primary reason HNJ chose to occupy 572 and 572A San Jose Avenue. A few years ago, the property was purchased by Ara Tehlirian, who sought to remodel it and live there himself, evicting 82-year-old Jose Morales in the process. Morales had been legally renting the property since 1965 and challenged his eviction in court.

Morales won when the judge ruled that it was illegal to evict him for the sole purpose of renovating the building for the new landlord. But Morales' success was short-lived. Tehlirian invoked the Ellis Act, so Morales was no longer legally able to live in his home. When Tehlirian subsequently asked for permission to renovate his house as he had initially planned, the judge denied the request citing that landlords cannot invoke the Ellis Act for an OMI eviction.

One reason the Ellis Act is used so frequently traces back to the passage of Proposition G in 1998, which prevented the type of eviction initially tried on Morales. Prop. G requires landlords invoking an OMI eviction to move into the evicted tenant's unit within three months of the eviction and to stay for a minimum of three years.

Furthermore, it limited such evictions to one person per building and banned them if a comparable unit was open in the building. Finally, and the reason cited in Morale's case, it made permanent an existing law that was set to expire in June of that year that prohibited any OMI eviction of senior, disabled, or catastrophically ill tenants.

Tehlirian, like many others before him, decided to use the Ellis Act to bypass these OMI restrictions. Ted Gullicksen, director of the Tenants Union, said Prop. G had the unintended effect of encouraging property owners to clear their buildings of tenants, a requirement of Ellis Act.

"A vacant building is generally worth 20 to 30 percent more than a building occupied with tenants because the landlord can do whatever he wants with the units, including selling them or renting at market rate," he told us.

So Morales was forced out of what remains a vacant building. This is why HNJ illegally occupied the property, arguing that trying to effect change through legal avenues is at times just as difficult as Morales' individual struggle against the Ellis Act. It highlighted the human cost of property rights.

"People who keep vacant buildings for profit tend to be the same ones who donate money to political campaigns," Tim said. Which is why he is resorting to a form of civil disobedience that is very likely to end with him in handcuffs.

Around 1 p.m. Sunday, April 4, the rally met in front of the property and the occupiers frantically rushed to hang banners and secure any entrance the San Francisco police might find. As the first drops of rain fell, the Brass Liberation Orchestra played, speakers including Gullicksen and Morales said a few words, and the Food Not Bombs organization supplied free food to occupiers and members of the rally.