Homes Not Jails Tries Again

Saturday the 7th of April was a good day for the San Francisco community housing rights movement and a bad day for the squat they came together to defend on 23rd and Treat Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Homes Not Jails, the SF Tenants Union and other groups got together to defend a squat that was evicted in 2003 through the now notorious Ellis Act. The Ellis Act has been used to evict untold numbers of longtime residents to make way for the real estate boom that came with the dot-com wave of silly money, a fragile bubble economy and a wave of speculation seemingly bent on destroying community in its wake before ultimately collapsing. Long time residents of SF like myself have been pushed out by skyrocketing rent and a wave of relatively conservative, ethnically homogenous, technically adept people have changed the social landscape of San Francisco in their wake.

The action began when a number of squatters, including a homeless youth, an activist clergywoman, a member of the housing advocacy group the SF Tenants’ Union, and squatter group “Homes Not Jails” member Ted Gullickson broke into 2065 23rd street and spent the night in the building.

The following day, about 150 people gathered for song, dance and speeches outside the 24th street commuter rail station. The protest sang and chanted its way to the building where the squatters unfurled banners from the second story window demanding the repeal of the Ellis Act and a stop to the eviction of seniors.

“We’re demanding that the city use its legal powers to take over this building, to return the evicted tenants, and to make the units available for affordable housing,” said Gullickson at the rally. “This building has been vacant for about four years at this point. If landlords are going to take our buildings and leave them empty, we’ll just take them back.”

The Ellis Act goes back to 1986 and supposedly exists in order to allow a landowner to go out of the rental housing business. It takes a lot of power away from tenants, where rent control is in effect, and gives the owner a pretext for evicting tenants, who are barred from using defenses like “retaliation” (eviction of a tenant who demands repairs, for example) to protest the eviction. The intent of the law, according to the SF Rent Board User’s Guide is “to allow owners an absolute right to exit the landlord business while holding on to their property.”

Homes Not Jails was founded in 1992, according to their website, “to advocate for the use of vacant and abandoned housing for people who are homeless. With people literally dying on the sidewalks in front of vacant buildings, housing advocates, homeless advocates, and people who were homeless came together to find ways to utilize vacant buildings.” The SF chapter was very active in the 90’s seemingly squatting a property every week, and getting evicted about as often, but they persevered and some people even got to hold on to their buildings. HNJ also operates in Boston and Washington, DC. One of the main challenges that squatters face is being taken seriously by police and being afforded due process.

Many of the same laws that make squatting a viable and even attractive option for activists, new arrivals, young people, immigrants, bohemians and drug addicts in cities like Philadelphia, London, Barcelona and Helsinki also exist in California Law. Essentially, since every tenant is theoretically eligible to a legal eviction procedure, squatters can enter a vacant building illegally, and establish tenancy by living there, receiving mail, renovating the house and paying bills. The onus is then on the property owner to provide a legal framework for eviction. Some owners even allow squatters to remain in return for payment of property taxes or a promise to leave when the building is renovated at a later date. Responsible squatters can be a boon for homeowners, since a vacant house accumulates standing water, rot, mold and is subject to damage from pipes freezing and debris accumulation, especially on the roof, all of which are expensive for the owner and can lead to irreparable damage to the building. The city governments of Helsinki and Trondhiem in northern Europe even recognize that squatters have helped to preserve the architectural history of these cities by preserving buildings that the city government could not afford to preserve by itself.

But San Francisco is not Helsinki, and if the American law is notorious for enshrining private property as holy, dot-com era San Francisco is even harder on people who fall on the wrong side of the class divide. “This wouldn’t be an eviction,” Officer Flagherty told me while overseeing the April 7th eviction. “They don’t have any legal right to be there. There’s a difference between an eviction and people taking over an unoccupied building. That would be trespass.” And trespass, unlike tenancy, IS something that police are legally empowered to resolve on the spot.

The tradition of cops and landowners making judicial decisions leads to heartbreak and homelessness for others as well. Illegal immigrants, legal immigrants with limited knowledge of English, the elderly and the mentally handicapped are all routinely denied their rights as tenants because police are ignorant of the law or simply wish to BE the arbiters of the law. The previous occupants of 2065 23rd Street were elderly longtime SF residents.

Claire, one of the squatters of 2065 23rd street wants to see the passage of Senate Bill SB 464, which she says will make it a lot harder for landlords to evict in order to raise rents. The bill would require an owner to possess a property for at least five years before evoking the Ellis Act, making it harder for business people to buy, evict, renovate and re-rent properties at will.