Some 30 protesters marched against Leona Fong’s Ellis Act eviction of 24-year Mission resident Sergio Silva-Lainez last Saturday afternoon, visiting each of the Fong family’s eight properties in the Mission. Chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the Ellis Act has got to go!” erupted from the crowd as it snaked its way through the Mission, delivering certificates of “honorary membership” to the “Mission Bad Landlord Club” at each Fong property.
But are the Fongs bad landlords? The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s “Dirty Dozen” list—the Fongs are not on it—is filled with serial evictors (with Ellised buildings ranging anywhere from 10 to 69) who often flip properties for a tidy profit. Other landlords have been targeted for charges that include intimidation of tenants and severe disrepair.
The Fongs, on the other hand, have no noted complaints on their properties and are adamant that they plan on moving into the building themselves. They argue that they’ve given Silva-Lainez a long lead time to find a new place, even offering him a smaller place in one of their own buildings, verified by someone speaking for the tenant.
“I just feel sickened,” said Elizabeth Fong. “We’re just being targeted for this incident. My mother has worked here for 45 years. We’re local, we’re family-funded, we have no outside investors. We’re not trying to flip the property.” She added that having only one eviction out of all their buildings is a “pretty damn good record.”
Housing advocates, however, argued otherwise. And the focus on the Fongs raises the question: Is it ever just to pursue a no-fault eviction?
Ted Gullicksen from the San Francisco Tenants’ Union (SFTU), says no, emphasizing that the Fong family has the resources to find a place without evicting an entire family. “Nobody should be evicted for no-fault reasons in San Francisco,” he said, referring to the kind of eviction where the tenant has paid rent on time and is not at fault. “There are plenty of places you can buy that don’t require you to evict people.”
The Mission/Bernal Chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a co-sponsor of the march, values the Fong properties in the Mission at slightly more than $9 million. ACCE is a statewide organization active in gentrification and housing issues.
The tenant Silva-Lainez, on the other hand, is self-employed as an electrician, and his wife runs a daycare from their home. The two have been in the Mission since 1991, the year after they entered the United States as refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war. They now have three children, aged 13, 16 and 22, who live with them in the family’s three-bedroom apartment at the corner of 24th and Bryant, the lone unit above an abandoned storefront.
Early on, Silva-Lainez and the Fongs had a “very good relationship,” confirmed by both parties. Silva-Lainez even did electrical work at some of the family’s properties. As early as 2006, the Fongs said—and corroborated by ACCE—that Silva-Lainez was told the Fongs wanted the apartment back, but “he would not move,” said Elizabeth Fong.
In 2010, the Fong family tried to evict the Silva-Lainez family for the first time, and Silva-Lainez said that relations have soured since then.
“There’s too much pressure on us,” he said of the experience. “We’re always thinking about when we’re gonna leave. We’re always stressed.”
Silva-Lainez worked with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic to beat his 2010 eviction, partnering with them again to beat a second one in 2011. Fong said they lost the cases because their representative at the time was an “incompetent fly-by-night lawyer.”
For the latest eviction, Silva-Lainez has joined the Mission/Bernal Chapter of ACCE, a community organization that tackles issues brought by its membership—of late, tenants’ rights—to push for direct action against the Fongs.
But the family’s record appears solid. There are no known complaints against any of the Fongs’ other properties in the Mission, nor have they had evictions elsewhere, according to data from the Planning Department and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
Additionally, the Fongs seem to have cordial relations with their other tenants.
“They’ve always been very accommodating,” said Sean Scharf, who lives at the Fongs’ property on Folsom. “We’ve always had a very good relationship,” he said, echoing a statement of Silva-Lainez’s about their earlier relationship.
The Fongs said they have long wanted to develop the property at 2830 24th Street to move in. The family has permits to renovate the building to move in 80-year-old Fong next to her businesses and children. Leona, Evelyn, James and Richard Fong plan on moving their families into the remodeled space, which would be three stories tall and include four units, as well as an elevator for the elderly Fong. “She has trouble getting up the stairs,” said Evelyn, adding that Fong wants to come “full circle” to the building “where it all started” when she herself came to the Mission in the early 1970s.
Those in support of Silva-Lainez, however, don’t buy that argument.
Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project said that though the project goes after the “particularly egregious” cases of speculators who “really abuse” the Ellis Act, other evictions should be opposed too. “The stance of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is that all no-fault evictions should be opposed,” she said. “We find it very important to fight for anybody who finds themselves losing San Francisco as a home.”
(The Ellis Act is a state law that allows landlords to get out of the rental business by evicting an entire building. The Ellised units can be put back on the rental market after five years, but if they’re put back within 10 years, the displaced tenants have right of first refusal. But this should not affect the Fong family, since they say they will be moving in themselves.)
“They’re acting like they’re small business people,” added Buck Bagot, an organizer with ACCE. “But my take is, if you own eight multi-unit buildings in San Francisco, you’re a multi-millionaire. And if they have so many properties, why can’t they find another place for Sergio to stay?”
With eight properties in the Mission, many half residential and half commercial, the Fongs have some 16 residential units in the neighborhood. But they say that there has been almost no significant turnover in the last 10 years. The last tenant to move out left some three years ago.
According to ACCE organizer Julien Ball, Silva-Lainez and the Fongs did work together in the past to find Silva-Lainez a new place, but finding the right apartment was difficult.
“As far as I know, he’s always either asked to stay there, or get a similar place at the same price,” he said. “And where was he gonna find a place that accommodated a family of five under $1,000 a month?”
Evelyn Fong said there was a previous offer to move the Silva-Lainez family to the Fong’s property at 1176 York Street, but the two-bedroom unit was too small for the family of five, and the apartment was turned down.
And now, Evelyn and James say that they are “not obligated” to find him a place, adding that he has had plenty of time to find an apartment, since they told him of their plans to renovate years ago.
“He’s known since 2006 that we wanted the property back,” Evelyn said.
The Fong family said it was advised by Jeff Woo of the law firm Cooper, White and Cooper to pursue an Ellis Act eviction rather than an owner move-in eviction because the latter stipulates that the family must move in within three months or be held in “bad faith.” Since the family could not move in before renovations are completed (which could take up to a year), he said they could be open to “much more litigation.”
(Cooper, White and Cooper is one of the law firms listed in the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s as representatives for “Dirty Dozen” serial evictors, and were sought because of their “experience with the Ellis Act,” Evelyn said.)
Gullicksen of the SFTU believes that Woo’s reasoning is nonsense and bad counsel. He said that there are no legal ramifications for not moving in within 90 days under an owner move-in eviction, and that the family would actually save tens of thousands of dollars in relocation fees they now have to pay under the Ellis Act, raising suspicion in his eyes as to their true intent.
But for many protesting the Fongs, the real issue is the eviction of a community member.
“Is it reasonable to move [four] separate families into a building, all of whom already have places to live, when Sergio and his family will be out on the street?” Ball said. “He has no place to stay, and they have the resources to do something right.”
Since Silva-Lainez has less he can muster, ACCE and other housing rights groups have taken the helm, pushing direct action as a means to resist Silva-Lainez’s eviction.
“If you stay and fight, you have a good chance of winning,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca from the Housing Rights Committee. “We’ve stopped [evictions] before because the tenants got together and got organized. We can do it again.”
Mike Ponce, student and Iraq War veteran, was the most vocal of Silva-Lainez’s supporters, urging the neighborhood to “go out there and march with pride and dignity” because “everybody is affected by this.” Using a megaphone, he also addressed gentrification in the Mission.
“This is a working class neighborhood!” he shouted. “San Francisco has made it impossible to live here. What happened to the middle class? To the blue-collar class? It’s not about drinking organic coffee, it’s about preserving a culture.”
The final stop of the march was Silva-Lainez’s apartment at 2830 24th St., which is flanked by Punjab Restaurant and Five Markets, both owned and run by the Fongs. Here, the group delivered its final certificates to Evelyn Fong herself, who was with her brother James at her grocery store. “We tried to talk to him, but no money would make him move,” Evelyn Fong said later. “The Ellis Act was the only way.”
The protest ended with a statement from Silva-Lainez.
“Gracias a todos por el apoyo,” he said, thanking everyone in Spanish for their support. “I want to thank everybody who’s here to stand up against the Ellis Act and to support me in this. The reason that we’re fighting is that we don’t want to lose our home. They should leave us alone. They can afford to do the right thing and let us stay here in the Mission.”