Low-income tenants face possible eviction at Parkmerced

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At least nine eviction proceedings have started at the Parkmerced housing complex, the site of a controversial new housing development, in response to an effort by the property management company to collect back payments on rent and utility bills, the Guardian has learned.

In recent months, nearly 200 residents received official notices warning that they would face eviction if they did not take steps to bring their accounts current within three days, according to Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. About 80 three-day notices were issued to tenants who are on Section 8, a federal low-income housing assistance program that subsidizes rental payments using public funds provided by the local housing authority.

"They're extremely low-income renters, and they're suddenly being asked to pay large balances," Shortt explained. "It's blood from a turnip." Most of the amounts owed ranged between $600 and $800, she added.

Shortt said that while some tenants were being allowed to set up payment plans, this measure wasn't guaranteed for every tenant attempting to address the problem within the three-day timeframe. And she was skeptical that the payment-plan arrangements being presented by management were realistic in every case.

"I don't know if Parkmerced is doing anything illegal," Shortt said, acknowledging that she was receiving conflicting accounts of the situation. "But they're executing something about legitimate recovery of money in an unfair manner. To allow people to slide for years and suddenly come at them for back bills is a one-way ticket for eviction."

The Guardian was unable to reach Stellar Management, the real-estate management company at Parkmerced, but Shortt said she had spoken with Stellar representatives on behalf of tenants who were contacting the Housing Rights Committee in a panic.

Stellar representative Bryce Boddie explained the situation to her by saying a previous property management company had left billing records in disarray, and the company was finally getting around to straightening out its books by demanding payments that had long since been owed. "Their contention was that they basically decided it was time to clean house and recoup payments," she said. Shortt said she'd also been told that Stellar had come under pressure from Fortress Investment Group, a firm that took ownership of the property last year, to get payments in order.

But P.J. Johnston, a public relations representative for Parkmerced, rejected that account, saying, "We absolutely follow up with residents who are not paying their bills." Johnston said the number of three-day notices served this year were in keeping with last year, indicating that there had been no drastic changes in policy since the approval of the new housing project. He did not know how many Section 8 tenants received the warning notices in 2010. "Whether someone is a Section 8 certificate holder or just a regular resident, everybody's got to pay their rent," he said.

Johnston bristled at the criticism that renters were being asked to fork over unrealistically high sums on the spot for payments that had lapsed for long periods, saying, "If we had moved swiftly to evict residents sooner, we'd be hearing that we didn't give them a chance."

The issue comes on the heels of Board of Supervisors approval for a controversial housing development project at Parkmerced that tenant groups opposed because they felt it didn't go far enough to protect renters. A development agreement negotiated between Parkmerced Investors and the city guarantees that rent-controlled tenants will be able to move into brand-new units at the same rent-controlled rate once the old units are demolished. Some residents are suspicious that management's decision to issue three-day notices and take steps to evict tenants who cannot pay is a strategy for skirting these requirements.

Shortt said she couldn't be sure that this was the case, but worried nevertheless that low-income tenants could wind up being tossed out of Parkmerced, which is just the scenario that tenant advocates had feared. "The end result really is in clear conflict with the spirit of negotiations and tenant protections," she said.