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Out of the closet

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

  • Rachel Brahinsky
  • SF Bay Guardian

Out of the closet
Low-wage immigrants - like a large group now being evicted from a Dolores Street duplex - often must choose between homelessness and illegal, unsafe housing

It's hard to get inside Josefina Basaldua's room. To push open the door is to risk crushing most of the home-health-care worker's possessions. That's because the space she lives in is a closet: it says so on an architect's drawing of the house. But some time ago a landlord apparently decided to put a dead bolt on the door and rent it out for $200 a month.

Basaldua's bed, a child-size slice of a mattress, is squeezed in on one side between her clothes and personal belongings. Hers is the smallest in a series of rooms in a duplex converted into a boardinghouse with a communal kitchen and bathroom facilities, inhabited mainly by Spanish-speaking immigrants.

But squeezing her life into a tiny room is not Basaldua's worry these days. Soon, she fears, she may have no home at all. That's because landlord Ugo Sap is evicting her and her flatmates from their Dolores Street home, following up on a 1998 notice from the Department of Building Inspection that says the place is illegally overcrowded.

The story of this house and the eviction under way there is emblematic of the lives of many immigrants in the city, particularly in the Mission District and Chinatown. Landlords rent out homes as boardinghouses, packing people into small rooms, which serves the needs of a population looking for cheap rent. But the homes are illegal and deemed unsafe both for the tenants and their neighbors because of the crowded conditions. And once they're renting out apartments illegally, landlords have little incentive to do maintenance or respond to tenant complaints.

In the end, if something happens - if a fire breaks out, for example - the landlord is responsible; California law has long recognized the obligation of landlords to protect the health and safety of tenants. At the same time, housing options for tenants like Basaldua - who face eviction in an era of shrinking public housing funds and soaring private housing costs - seem grim. And they'd rather live in dangerous buildings than have no home at all.

In a section of the Mission District with nice houses, flanked by Mission Dolores and Mission High School, 368-370 Dolores St. stands out as one of the few buildings in need of a paint job. Still, there's no way to know just by looking at it that the two-unit structure is home to 17 people. They were brought together by financial circumstances but say they have become a close-knit family. Some have been on Dolores Street for nearly two decades.

Take Mario Burgos Hernandez, a retired mechanic who lives in one of the front rooms. At 64 years old, Hernandez said he's been a tenant for 18 years, ever since immigrating from El Salvador.

Now he depends on social security, which covers his $300 monthly rent. "The stress of talking about this hurts my chest," he told the Bay Guardian recently, in Spanish. "I live alone, and I have nowhere to go. I applied to the [San Francisco] Housing Authority, but they haven't called me."

Over the years, former landlord Idi Torres let the building fall into serious disrepair. The kitchen floors show layers of age, and city building inspection reports say the heat works only in a few places in the building. The back door of the upstairs apartment fell off last fall, leaving a gaping hole that welcomes in the elements and leaves the place vulnerable to thieves. Several months later the door is still off its hinges, leaning over to one side.

We called Torres, who confirmed that at least 10 people lived in the building when she sold it, but she declined to comment further. "I have nothing to do with this," she told us in Spanish. "I'm no longer the landlord."

According to tenants, it was Torres who authorized putting locks on each bedroom door, without complying with city rules for boardinghouse conversions. They say they've asked repeatedly for things to be fixed but have gotten little response.

Torres was cited several times by the Department of Building Inspection for problems with the house, including insufficient heat and illegal wiring. In 1998 DBI began sending warning letters to Torres after a city firefighter complained that the place seemed overcrowded. DBI records show that after a series of phone calls, DBI staff first discussed how to legalize the place with an architect working for Torres in 2000. After that, nothing seems to have happened until last October, when Torres sold the building and a DBI inspector told the new owner it would have to be legalized.

Sap applied for a building permit and then issued the eviction notices Jan. 14, giving tenants 60 days to evacuate.

We tried to reach Sap for comment. We left messages with his lawyer, Denise Ledbetter, and left a note at Sap's 580 De Haro St. office. Ledbetter never called back, but we did hear from Jim Grayville, who said that he was a "representative of the owner" and that he was responding to our note to Sap. Grayville, whose name appears on an electrical permit for the house, would not comment except to say that Sap had fixed the broken back door but that "they keep knocking it off." He said that the person who would be most appropriate for us to talk to wasn't available before we went to press, but wouldn't tell us who that person is, and said that he was "not certain" whether Sap himself knew we were seeking his comment.

We had hoped to ask Sap about the part of the story that tenants say is most deeply ironic. "They say this flat [is] illegal - yet they're taking our rent," said one resident, who asked not to be named. "You can't tell people who have been paying [the] mortgage for 20 years that you have to get out in 60 days. [But] Ugo Sap has a team of attorneys working for him. How can we fight back?"

The residents have found two attorneys willing to take the case pro bono. They've filed an appeal of the landlord's building permit and are hoping to win more time for the tenants to look for housing and compensation if the tenants have to move.

"There are two issues," attorney Karen Hull explained. "Is this the right way to be tossing people out on the street? And is there something that the landlord can do to make this legal?"

Sap is evicting under two sections of the local rent ordinance, including one that allows an eviction if the plan is to "demolish or to otherwise permanently remove the rental unit from housing use."

Hull questioned Sap's plans. "He's going to sell them or rent them," she insisted. "It's our take that this is not the proper use of the ordinance - that what he's really doing is trying to flip the building for a profit." Indeed, an architect's drawing of the place, given to tenants as part of the eviction notice, indicates plans to renovate the place for continued residential use, but Grayville specifically refused to answer our questions about this.

Plus, Hull said the "illegal use" law is usually used to break up crack houses or bordellos. "This is a particularly unfair way to evict people," Hull said. "It doesn't contemplate that both the tenant and the landlord know it's illegal."

Still, because of the DBI violation notice, the tenants may have a tough time keeping their home. City building inspector Ron Dicks, who hasn't seen the Dolores Street house, told us that it's not rare to find tenants being forced out of homes because of dangerous situations apparently created by landlords - but that once an inspector knows about a problem, the inspector is responsible for it. "This is the dilemma we're faced with all the time. But as an inspector, once you're cognizant of that stuff, the bottom line is you," he said. And for landlords, making the conversion legal can be costly - although it is indeed possible.

Tenant advocates told us there are possibly thousands of illegal homes across the city. Some are apartments used as boardinghouses; others are "in-law" apartments converted from garages and other small spaces (which Sup. Aaron Peskin has tried to legalize).

"There are tons of illegal units," said Mariana Viturro of the St. Peter's Housing Committee, which mainly counsels Latino tenants in the Mission District. "Most of the time we discourage anyone [living in them] from calling [DBI] when they have repair issues, because by trying to punish the landlord, they punish the tenants. The tenants feel it the most because they get evicted."

If they end up losing their homes, the Dolores Street tenants face the Bay Area's tough housing market, which could become even harsher for very-low-income folks in the next year. Tucked inside the Bush administration's new budget proposal: $3.9 billion in cuts to the Housing and Urban Development Department, including the elimination of the Community Development Block Grant program, which is a major source of affordable-housing funding. San Francisco received $24.5 million from the program during the current fiscal year.

So where will these tenants go? Given the options, Viturro said, "they'll probably end up in another boardinghouse."

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