In late December, Alba Guerra was on her way to Lake Tahoe with her family when she received a call from one of her neighbors. Someone had broken into her restaurant: it was her landlady, Glenda Gutierrez.
Neighbors not only took photos and videos, they called Erick Arguello, the director of Calle 24, a nonprofit trying to preserve the corridor. He arrived, asked them for the required notice and they had none. Just his presence, however, put Gutierrez on notice that someone was watching, Arguello said.
Gutierrez hasn’t replied to multiple offers for an interview.
Although she has never been given a reason for the break-in, Guerra, who has owned the Sunrise Restaurant for the last eight years, suspected that the landlord might be trying to surreptitiously create a violation that would give her grounds for ending Guerra’s lease.
This time around, the city had some new legal clout to offer Guerra: legal assistance from an initiative backed by Mayor Ed Lee and launched in 2012 to focus in 25 neighborhood commercial districts.
The pilot of Invest in Neighborhoods is currently being rolled out and tested in the Mission’s 24th Street corridor where 46 percent of the commercial district area storefronts account for eating and drinking. Pressure on local business and building owners to sell is common.
“We are doing this to slow down the process of gentrification,” Arguello said. “To make sure leases are proper. As commercial spaces, these tenants are unprotected. Now there is tension, and there is more attention drawn to this. So, we can do more.”
Guerra’s lease was renewed last September, but since then the owner had decided to sell the building, Arguello said. One couple backed out when they discovered that Guerra had a new five-year lease, he said.
“There have been attempts in the past to get them out, but [Guerra] is on a lease,” Arguello said. “But she was being harassed,” he said, referring to the incident on December 26 when her landlady showed up with a locksmith.
It appears that having Arguello there and getting the legal team involved stopped any action against Guerra and put the landlord on notice that she knew her rights, Guerra said. At present, she is secure in her five-year lease.
A Thai restaurant, a block east that was also in a Gutierrez-owned building was not as lucky in 2009. After their lease ended, the landlady wanted a rent increase and the Thai place had to relocate to SoMa.
The Mexican restaurant that moved in next ended up having to pay a high deposit in cash — $18,000, according to SF Weekly, which reported in 2009 that Gutierrez also made the tenants sign a contract in a language they don’t speak or read, and included clauses on the lease forbidding them to talk to the press.
Although commercial tenants are only protected from rent increases during the time of their lease, Arguello is working to create incentives for property owners to keep current tenants without raising lease rates exponentially.
One idea is to give property owners a tax cut if they offer 10 to 20-year leases, according to Arguello.
For Guerra, the legal advice became key. Lawyers paid by a city grant are working with her on going over her lease to make sure she will not be forced to close if the building is sold and to resolve anything she might not be in compliance with.
Diana Ponce de León, the mayor’s point person in the Mission, said it was a matter of awareness. “They shouldn’t feel threatened because there has to be awareness….This is an educational tool to have access to information,” Ponce de León said.
Guerra’s business, known as a gathering place for artists and for its once-a-week fundraisers for the community, is going strong and she feels confident that the help she is receiving, along with the support from her neighbors, will continue to allow her to keep adding value to the 24th Street corridor.
Programs that are part of the Mayor’s Invest in Neighborhoods:
BizFitSF — A free four-month-long program to strengthen existing businesses.
ADA Small Business Assessment Program — ADA inspections free of cost for small businesses.
StorefrontSF — A tracking service of vacancies for potential small businesses in neighborhood corridors where the initiative is in place.
Jobs Squad — An outreach effort to help small businesses get information and help to navigate the process, one of the services tailors legal assistance through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. The point person in the Mission is Diana Ponce de León.