Ellis axed

Veteran tenant activist now faces his own eviction

Camille T. Taiara

José Morales, 76, has spent the past 15 years of his life as a tenant activist, organizing on behalf of senior, disabled, and low-income San Franciscans. His longtime work with the San Francisco Tenants Union (SFTU) and the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition prompted the Senior Action Network earlier this year to name him Senior of the Year for 2005.

But now Morales's battles have become a whole lot more personal: His landlord served him with an eviction notice Nov. 9.

As might be expected, Morales told the Bay Guardian he won't go quietly: "I'm willing to fight all the way to the end."

Brothers Ara and Bert Tehlirian, whose family owns numerous properties in San Francisco, Daly City, and beyond, bought the two-unit building where Morales lives in 1994. At the time, landlords for two- to four-unit properties who lived in their building for six months or more could evict tenants in the other apartments, so Ara moved into the lower unit. Proposition I on the 1994 ballot – which Morales helped pass – changed all that, and Ara returned to Daly City, Morales explained.

"Since that time, [the Tehlirians have] been after José, trying to get him out," the SFTU's Ted Gullicksen told us.

The Tehlirians doubled Morales's rent (with the Rent Board's authorization) and sought permits to make extensive alterations to the property that would have required Morales to move out for five years. The Planning Commission ruled that the Tehlirians' plans constituted a de facto demolition and denied their request. But the Tehlirians appealed – four times. The case is currently headed to the California Court of Appeals.

Now they want to evict Morales based on the Ellis Act. The law allows property owners to take their buildings off the rental market – often to sell them as tenancies in common, which can later be converted into condominiums. Ellis Act evictions reached an all-time high of 330 this year. That number is "actually higher than in the dot-com years," if you omit single-room occupancy hotels, which are no longer subject to the act, Gullicksen reported.

The Tehlirians retained renowned Ellis Act eviction expert Andrew Zacks's firm to represent them. Denise Leadbetter, the attorney assigned to the case, failed to return our calls by press time.

"To me, it would be devastating," Morales said.

Morales moved into his two-bedroom unit on San Jose Avenue in 1965, along with his mother and nephew, who've since passed away. He lives on $390 per month in Social Security, plus whatever extra cash he can bring in by teaching tennis. "I'm currently $10,000 in debt on my credit card," he told us.

Now he dreams of challenging the Ellis Act head-on and filling the Civic Center with people displaced by the law.

"At the end [of your article]," he said, "be sure to write, 'Housing is a human right.'<\!q>"

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com.