- This Week
By Rebecca Bowe
Hester Michael is a fashion designer, and her home doubles as a project space for creating patterns, sewing custom clothing, weaving cloth, and painting. She's lived in her Outer Sunset two-bedroom unit for almost two decades, but now she faces an Ellis Act eviction. Michael says she initially received notice last June. The timing was awful -– that same month, her husband passed away after a long battle with terminal illness.
"I've been here 25 years. My friends are here, and my business. I don't know where else to go, or what else to do," she says. "I just couldn't picture myself anywhere else."
Michael rents the upstairs unit of a split single-family home, a kind of residence that normally isn't protected by rent control. Yet she leased the property in 1994, getting in under the wire before that exemption took effect. Since she pays below-market-rate rent in a home that could be sold vacant for top dollar, a target was essentially inscribed on her back when the property changed hands in 2004. That's about when her long battle with the landlords began, she says.
From the get-go, her landlords indicated that she should look for a new place, Michael says, yet she chose to remain. The years that followed brought things falling into disrepair, she says, and a string of events that caused her feel intimidated and to fear eviction. Finally, she consulted with tenant advocates and hired an attorney. A complaint filed in superior court alleges that the property owners "harassed and retaliated [Michael] when she complained about the defective and dangerous conditions ...telling [her] to move out of the property if she did not like the dangerous conditions thereat ... repeatedly making improper entries into [the] property, and wrongfully accusing [her] of causing problems."
Records show that Angela Ng serves as attorney in fact for the property owner, Ringo Chung Wai Lee. Steven Adair MacDonald, an attorney who represents both landlords and tenants in San Francisco housing disputes, represents the owners. "An owner of a single family home where the rent is controlled and a fraction of market has virtually no other choice but to terminate the tenancy," MacDonald said when the Guardian reached him by phone. "They've got to empty it, and the only way to empty it is the Ellis Act."
While Michael received an extension that allows her to remain until June 5, she fears her custom sewing business, Hester's Designs, will suffer if she has to move. There's the issue of space. "I have so much stuff in this house," she says. And most of her clients are currently located close by, so she doesn't know where her business would come from if she had to relocate. "A lot of my clients don't have cars," she says, "so if I live in some suburb in the East Bay, forget it. I'll lose my business."
The prospect of eviction has created a major dilemma for Michael, who first moved to San Francisco in 1987. While moving to the East Bay seems untenable, she says renting in San Francisco feels out of reach. "People are renting out small, tiny bedrooms for the same price as I pay here," she says. With a wry laugh, she adds: "I don't think there's any vacant apartments in San Francisco -– unless you're a tech dude and make seven grand a month."