At One Building, Tenants Unite to Demand Rights

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En Español.

It was like most Fridays for Leticia Calderon — after dropping off her daughter at an after-school function, she returned home to her studio apartment at 3315 18th St.

But when she opened the door, normal came to an end. The sound of gushing water was coming from underneath the kitchen sink and it promised to disrupt their lives for months.

This is the story about one building where tenants came together to demand their rights from a landlord who was either unfamiliar with tenant rights or unwilling to accept them. Initially, Wael Mufarreh, the landlord, told tenants they had to move out of their apartments for two months at their own expense. The tenants felt that moving out for repairs was the first step in getting rid of them and they rallied together, consulted with tenant rights organizations and then made it clear to the landlord that they knew their rights.

“The tenants from the three apartments came together and said we are not going to leave,” said Brenda Delgado, a tenant from Apartment 9. “The inspector came and did the inspection and the [tenant organization] sent a letter — that helped us a lot.”

Both tenants and the landlord have compromised to work out a situation where they will not have to leave for two months, but it was not easy and the negotiations have taken a toll on Calderon’s children.

On that Friday in mid-January, Calderon was unsure what to do. Finally, she called the manager, who then called the landlord. He arrived after 25 minutes and shut off the water supply. “It was an eternal 25 minutes,” she recalls.

The damage had been done. Studio apartment number 16 that Calderon shares with her husband and two teenage children was flooded eight inches deep, potentially with sewage water, documents show. The apartment will require a new carpet and a cleaning to rid it of its damp smell.

The water had seeped through to the apartments directly below on the second and first floors. The roof of the second floor in apartment 9 had collapsed. It also needs new carpeting, according to building inspection documents.

Initially, the landlord told tenants from apartments 3, 9 and 16 that they would have to leave for two months. Calderon’s immediate reaction was to call around for housing. She reached a Tenderloin shelter where they told her they did not have anything available.

Mufarreh told them he didn’t care where they went, according to Calderon, but that they had to leave. The family of four was out on the street looking for hotels in the Mission and eventually settled on staying at a friend’s house.

“[The landlord] called the Red Cross but they said it was not that big of a problem,” she said.

But for Calderon it was a big problem. The flooding disrupted the delicate balancing act she has between working a couple of days a week cleaning houses and raising two teenage children, ages 13 and 14. She returned the following day because the apartment had been dried out. More work would have to be done, but she decided to stay because she simply did not have the money to move elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the requests for her to leave continued.

“Basically all I am asking is that they vacate the units for two weeks for whatever needs to be done,” the landlord said. “I am not evicting.”

While the landlord talked at times about two weeks, the tenants received letters from him asking them to leave for two months. “You need to vacate unit 2 months once all repairs are done you can come back at same rent,” the letter said.

The main dispute between the tenants and Mufarreh became the temporary relocation costs. Mufarreh said it was not his responsibility, but San Francisco law says otherwise. Landlords are required to pay up to $4,500 for relocation costs per each tenant, and in the case of Calderon, he would have to pay an additional $3,000 because there are two minors in the unit. If the relocation is for less than 20 days than the landlord is on the hook for $275 per day per tenant, according to the San Francisco Rent Board. 

Tenants responded to Mufarreh’s insistence that they move by getting counsel from tenant advocates and then countering with letters that Just Cause, a housing rights nonprofit, drafted.

In their letters, the tenants reminded Mufarreh that he would have to pay relocation costs.

“It’s the law,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, of the Housing Rights Committee. “When tenants come in, the landlord sets the rent which includes the costs of maintaining the building.”

A week ago, the landlord returned to the building and inspected the work to be done. He said that Calderon could stay in her apartment while the repairs are made.

Calderon and family settled into the apartment in 1996, and pay $800 a month in rent. They found the place after being evicted from an apartment at 20th and Folsom streets.

Calderon said she was willing to go somewhere else — as the Department of Building Inspection recommended, due to health concerns — but they don’t have the resources to find temporary or permanent housing.

“I don’t have the money to go to another place,” Calderon said. “The night of the flooding we spent $50 on dinner alone. Imagine that.”

Mufarreh bought the 19-unit, three-story building in 1999 for $1.395 million, and so far this year, building inspectors have served him with four violations.

They range from broken fire alarms to a notice to fix a collapsed roof, documents show.

Two of the notices were issued after the January flood. One of them dates back to 2010 and the other to 2012 — Both of the earlier notices have yet to be resolved.

Mufarreh declined to go into detail about the notices of violation, saying only, “It’s all minor stuff.”

The most serious one comes from the January 17 flood and the water damage it created. The notice was filed on February 11 — 25 days after the pipe burst. It demands that the landlord replace the collapsed ceiling and clean and resolve any plumbing leaks because the water could have contained sewage water.

He was given 10 days to do that work or risk getting administrative fees that range from a $104 hourly case management fee to $170 inspection fee.

Work is underway on the second floor, where the roof is being replaced in unit 9, and Calderon’s apartment got new carpet on Wednesday.

The tenants in apartment 9 and apartment 3 remain in their units even though they were initially told they would have to move out. They are content to stay during the repairs as they won’t have to look for housing. For Mufarreh, he will not have to pay relocation costs.

“The first time he came he told us we had to leave,” said Edy Magana, one of the tenants in unit number 3. “He changed his tone and said no one had to leave.”

Calderon said that her 14-year-old daughter took the uncertainty particularly hard.

“I know she’s scared,” she said. “Every night she asks me, “What’s going to happen tomorrow?”

Other tenant rights organizations:

The San Francisco Tenants Union.

Causa Justa/Just Cause

Housing Rights Committee

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