Spanning three decades in the Mission District, prominent San Francisco artist and curator René Yañez, who seeded and grew the annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration into a citywide event, is in the process of being evicted from his home of 35 years. His former wife, artist Yolanda Lopez, and his son, the artist Rio Yañez, are also included in the eviction notice.
“René and Yolanda helped paint the neighborhood into what it is today,” said Sarah Guerra, the operations manager at the Brava Theater and one of the many artists in the neighborhood who are organizing support efforts.
“There’s a lot going on that I am trying to reconcile with,” Rio Yañez, 33, added. ”Both of my parents have made a pretty large cultural investment with the city, but there’s not a lot of protection at this point.
“Rent control is what afforded my parents with the opportunity to live in this city and make art. Being an artist means they have no savings, no retirement, no health care. They live check to check. For their dedication to art, that’s where they are. With elderly people like them, with limited income, this essentially makes them homeless.”
The eviction comes at a particularly difficult time because both Yañez, who is 71, and his partner, Cynthia Wallis, have terminal cancer.
Yañez and his family members were given a notice in July that they have one year to move out of the duplex on San Jose. The eviction is legal under the Ellis Act, a provision in the state’s rental laws that allows an owner to take rentals off the market. Once largely dormant, Ellis Act evictions spike in boom times and are up by 81 percent in the past year. Since late 2012, a total of 116 Ellis Act evictions have been filed.
A friend and artistic collaborator Guillermo Gómez-Peña is seeking to rally support for Yañez and a conversation about the rise in evictions. In an open letter to Yañez that Gómez-Peña also sent to friends, artists and organizations, he refers to the Yañez family as “puro Chicano royalty.”
“It’s an outrage, it’s tragic, and sadly, it’s all too common in this merciless city that seems to care nothing for those who’ve helped make it what it once wanted to be,” Gómez-Peña wrote.
Yañez is the founder and curator of a number of iconic organizations in San Francisco, including the Mission Cultural Center and Galería de la Raza.
His mark on the city’s art landscape is indelible, but he can no longer afford to live here, Gómez-Peña wrote.
Yañez and his family have until July 2014 to vacate the premises, and so far have no prospects for new housing they can afford.
Yañez and Rio’s mother, Yolanda Lopez, occupy two units of a historic four-unit building on San Jose Avenue, where they raised their son. For three decades, it has served as both a home and a place where their art began. Both units were protected with rent control, and the tenants currently pay about $450 per month in rent.
The eviction has elicited outrage from the close-knit community of artists and merchants, and efforts to raise awareness of Yañez’s plight are ramping up. A fundraiser is planned for the end of the month at Brava Theater. In collaboration with the Lower 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association, the fundraiser is part of a larger effort to shed light on the wave of evictions.
A march protesting the Ellis Act is also planned for Oct. 12. Those who are not able to attend will still be able to make a donation to the Yañez family through the theater’s website.
“Getting this event planned was really just kind of a no-brainer,” Guerra said. “As soon as we started calling up artists, there was immediate support…we see this as an opportunity to bring attention to them as individuals as well as show how Ellis Act evictions really hurt. They show that the realty companies have no commitment to the people who made San Francisco what it is.”
The landlord, Sergio Iantorno of Golden Properties, LLC, has offered Yañez and Lopez around $13,000 and $11,000, respectively, as a means of relocation fees, a price which Rio calls, “absurd.”
Iantorno has not returned multiple phone calls, so it is unclear what plans he has for the duplex.
“There’s nowhere they could go for that amount of money in San Francisco, and certainly not in the Mission,” Rio Yañez said. “They aren’t looking for a huge buyout so that they can start a new life. They are in their seventies.”
Yañez and his family began getting notices from Iantorno last year, encouraging them to agree to a buyout or face an Ellis Act eviction. Seeking counsel from the San Francisco Tenants Union, they were put in contact with attorney Raquel Fox of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who advised them not sign any sort of agreement.
“Ellis Act evictions are impossible to fight,” said Ted Gullickson, who heads the tenants union. “They are horrible. All you achieve with legal help is drawing out the process and buying time.”
For a few months, nothing happened. Then the notices started coming again, with one in March spelling out that an Ellis Act eviction was imminent. During that time, the Yañez family got to know a group of people in the Tenants Union office, all facing Ellis Act evictions and all from the same landlord.
“This landlord, Iantorno, had been on our radar for decades,” Gullickson said. “But last December, we really started noticing that he was coming up again.”
Iantorno achieved a sort of infamy among residents and tenant union employees last winter when he sent out a Christmas card of sorts to his tenants. Misleadingly cheery, the red and green-colored notices asked them to check one of two boxes indicating that they would either accept a buyout or face eviction.
With that information, Gullickson and volunteer coordinator Becca Gourevitch began holding meetings with the Iantorno’s tenants and systematically visiting all known buildings he owns to gauge just how many of his tenants are being evicted.
While still in the planning stages, the group of around a dozen residents plans to file a lawsuit against Iantorno, if only for the sake of bringing awareness to the ethics of his practices.
Referencing the recent case involving the Lee family of San Francisco, who managed to stave off an Ellis Act eviction for an extra 10 days and negotiate relocation fees and services thanks to public support, Gullickson said the only tool tenants have is publicly shaming the landlord into backing down.
By banding together with fellow Iantorno evictees, retaining legal representation to negotiate the best payout and garnering public support, Yañez’s family hopes to at least avoid outright eviction.
“Legally, there is not much we can really do,” Rio Yañez said. “We are just trying to do whatever we can to compel the realty company to drop the eviction. One way to do that is by rallying around my parents; they feel very alone. All we have is the court of public opinion to pressure the company into giving us more time.”
Time is particularly critical when taken into account with Yañez ’s health. While Rio’s mother, Yolanda, is in relatively good health and has begun looking into senior housing options, his father and Cynthia have a tougher road ahead.
Cynthia has stomach cancer. Yañez, who is her primary caretaker, has bone cancer. The logistics of grappling with these facts along with the evictions has been overwhelming, Rio said.
“Cynthia could be in the process of dying or dead while they are in the process of moving,” he said. “They were kind of at peace and mentally prepared that this would be their home when they passed away, being in the community where they’ve put so much into. That’s the toughest thing for me: trying to find new spots for them to pass away in.”
Note: Rio Yañez has contributed to Mission Local and he was the artist in Mission Local’s book, My Mission.