By RIGOBERTO HERNANDEZ
Like many Mission District landlords these days, Michele Di Pilla has a problem: a commercial tenant owes him back rent. He also has his fair share of tenants who rent below market rates or need a few more days to get the check in.
Instead of sending eviction notices, however, Di Pilla said, “I want them to make progress, make money and be able to pay.”
Unlike the caricature of the evil landlord, it’s surprising how many times in reporting along Mission or 24th streets that tenants talk about landlords like Di Pilla who give them a break and make it possible to do business in a difficult economy.
“Landlords who understand their tenants are people that get involved in the community and understand what the business means to the community,” said Dairo Romero, a Community Organizer for the Mission Economic Development Agency.
The owner of a clothing store in one of Di Pilla’s buildings who has not paid rent for months is testing the goodwill she built up over years of paying rent on time.
Nowadays, the tenant, who asked not to be identified, works full time at a pharmacy to contribute to the rent on the clothing store, but the already reduced rent of $1625—even with an additional reduction to $1575 is untenable, she said.
“I like her that’s why I want to give her a chance, but if there is no business there is no business,” said Di Pilla, who spends much of his time hanging out in front of the Argentina Shop at 3250 24th St. which he owns. He said he has yet to decide what to do about the tenant.
Many of his tenants, such as Guadalupe Salazar, whom he has known for 30 years, have become friends.
After renting from Di Pilla at his 29th Street building for 20 years, Salazar moved out to help her niece with her mortgage, but in 2003 she began renting commercial space in the building he owns next to the Argentina Shop.
“He has always been understanding to me,” Salazar said. “He is a good person because he helps someone when they need it.”
Colleen Meharry, the owner of several Mission District properties including the building Foreign Cinema has occupied for the last ten years, also gets high marks for the way in which she manages her property.
“I always believed in this neighborhood,” Meharry told Mission Loc@l last month.
John Clark, who owns Foreign Cinema with his wife Gayle Pirie, agreed. Meharry, Clark said, is good at “making sure that everything were doing is good for the block, that rent is fair. She’s active in the block and Mission Street and interested in making sure that her properties are kept up.”
Thought not picture perfect, next-door neighbor Hawk Lou, 53, the owner of 2578 Mission St. is a landlord trying to keep afloat and respond to tenants in need.
Lou inherited the building and the debt after his father passed away in 2007. The debt includes taxes on the building and a remaining mortgage.
“If I had a choice I would not be a landlord, it’s stressful keeping up with the payments,” he said, adding that the water and garbage charges have gone up. “I can go to China and live a good life, but I got to stay and take care of my family.”
The temptation to cash out increases he said because at least one-third of his residential tenants are behind on rent. But evicting them is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, he has known them since he became his father’s business partner ten years ago. Second, eviction is costly.
So, his solution is to see if they can all survive by sticking together.
“He is a good landlord because he pays attention to us,” said Juan Ramon Bueno, the 47-year-old owner of J.R. Jewelers that has been in Lou’s building for 18 years.
“He walks around here often, and there is an emergency contact if we ever need something,” Bueno said.
Bueno’s sales have dropped as much as 80 percent in the past two years, and he barely makes enough money to pay his monthly rent of $2,200 or $1.83 a square foot, but he calls the rent fair.
Lou said he wants his commercial tenants to be there “for the long run.”
As he fixed a light for his tenant Cinderella Fashion, Lou added. “I just do common sense stuff. I know that things are tough so I try to give them a chance.”
Ramon Madrigal, 57, and the owner of 2801 24th Street where St. Francis Fountain and Candy kitchen opened in 2006, agreed.
“What’s the point of renting a locale to someone for high rent if in six to seven months they are going to leave,” he said.
When Madrigal acquired the building in 2000, he ran the diner for two years before selling it to the current business owners.
The plan, Madrigal said, was to offer them cheap rent to become established and then to raise the rent.
“One has to work thinking what you want from them and what they aspire to be,” Madrigal said.