“Welcome to the former Sierra Hotel,” a man says as we all tromp up the staircase. “Forty-two units of perfectly good housing. It’s sat empty for the last 19 years.”

“Why has it been empty for so long?” someone asks.

“Ask Ed Litke,” he replies. “He’s the owner.”

Some say the Sierra has been vacant for 20 years. Another person says it’s been empty for seven. Whatever the duration, the group, which calls itself Homes Not Jails, has arrived with several duffel bags of bread, a flat pack of orange Gatorade, sleeping bags, guitars and sunscreen. The goal: to call attention to how much high-quality real estate in the city remains vacant — kept that way by the graduated property taxes ushered in by Proposition 13, the statewide ban on vacancy control laws, and quite possibly by city ordinances that make it difficult to convert low-income housing like this into market-rate housing.

“How did you get in?” I ask a man who is tucking one cell phone into his pocket and reaching up to answer another.

“The door was open,” he says, coolly.

Whatever it was like in its days as an SRO, the Sierra is beautiful now. The light is wonderful, the floors are hardwood, and even the small rooms feel well-proportioned and spacious. Some say it has 42 rooms and some say 43, but the room numbers go up to 40.

The question of why it’s vacant will have to wait for another day, since none of the stories quite match up.

“He refuses to sell,” says one person. “He’s had reasonable offers from housing collectives.”

“He’s got T-Mobile downstairs. At commercial rates. He’s making so much renting that space that if he had tenants again, this would jeopardize it.”

“He’s going to turn all this into condos. Through the Ellis Act.”

“Next year, this is going to be offices.”

Litke is a man who owns a lot of valuable property in the Mission. Documents released as part of a court case last year estimated his net worth at $40 million. In the case, the California Court of Appeals upheld a $1.2 million judgment against him in a case of wrongful eviction.

Someone spills a plate of noodles on the floor, and immediately a crowd forms around to clean it up.

“Does anyone have any water?” a person wiping up the spill asks.

“No,” says someone else. “The water is turned off. Makes it hard to clean.”

“If you get PG&E to turn the water on,” an older man says, “then you have a utility bill that you can show the police to prove that you live there, and sometimes they’ll go away.”

This group won’t be here for long. Not with the brass band, the bicycle that someone has left in the middle of 20th Street (cars edge around it, politely), the banners hanging out of the windows and the freestyle rap outside the front door.

“This is our first open occupation in a long time,” says the man with two cell phones, who turns out to be named Matt Crain. By “open,” he says, he means one where the goal is to “invite people in to experience the space,” instead of squatting in it in secret. Last year, a few of the same people in this group took over the building as part of an organization called Direct Action to Stop the Cuts. They managed to stay all night before getting arrested.

Someone notices the undercover police car at around 5:30 p.m. The cruisers begin to circle the building at 6. At 6:45, the squad cars pull up and park across the street. Three police officers walk into the building. As they go up the stairs, a man tries to follow them. A phalanx of cameras moves in around him, like a collection of whirring beetles.

“You can’t come inside,” says the officer at the door. “This building is closed.”

All of a sudden so many people are shouting that it is difficult to distinguish one shout from another. “This is public property,” someone keeps yelling. “You have no right,” yells another. It is difficult to tell who shoves who first, but suddenly the man who has been trying to get inside is flipped and pinned to the pavement with brutal efficiency by four police officers. Either everyone is screaming, or just a few people are screaming and it feels like everyone. Suddenly the street is full of police cars, and yellow caution tape is being rolled across the intersection.

Then, just as quickly, the man is muscled away in handcuffs. The caution tape is unrolled. All but three of the squad cars pull away. Two more leave, and finally only one remains.

Someone walks up and tries the door to the Sierra. It’s unlocked. Walking up the stairs, it becomes evident why the police left. The Sierra has a huge metal security gate at the top of the stairwell, and the protesters had locked it against them.

Up on the roof, the crowd, much diminished, is settling in again. One of them has turned over his bottle of Gatorade, so that the label faces up. “Brominated vegetable oil?” he says, incredulously. “What is brominated?”

“Oh man,” says the woman next to him. “Why’d you have to go there?”

“Sorry I ruined your day,” he says.

“No,” she says, not unkindly. “You just ruined my Gatorade.”

“They need Ed to sign a piece of paper that we’re trespassing,” someone says. “Then they’ll break down the gate. They’ll be back tomorrow morning.”

“They’ll be back in the middle of the night,” says the cameraman, packing up his gear. “Once they’re all tired, and have let their guard down.”

“We have an open occupation again,” says Crain. “Tell people they can come over. Tell Devin to bring his accordion.”

At midnight, the remaining protesters were still there. They were, they said, really enjoying the Fourth of July fireworks.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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16 Comments

  1. bunch of skinny white kids playing guitar, eating noodles, and sunbathing on the roof hardly is deserving of the word “occupation.” Sounds more like “party” to me.

    Truly the laziest protest in the history of the USA. I love this generation, they think emailing a petition is political activism and eating noodles in an abandoned building is an “occupation.” Anything, as long as it doesn’t involve effort or sacrifice…

  2. I spent some time their this afternoon, invited in by the residents, to take photos, documenting that nothing has changed since I last visited one year ago.

    In fact, the owner has left this property vacant and in disrepair for two decades – through two of the greatest economic booms this nation ever enjoyed – the dot com and housing bubbles.

    Still, he let this property in a prime location rot in a state of disuse.

    With six thousand plus homeless and many more unemployed in the city – approaching homelessness, this has got to stop

    If the city won’t seize it via Emanate Domain as a blighted property, other courses of action are called for.

    If you allow links, I will be happy to post a link to the photos I took. Email me a reply.

    1. the six thousand homeless people in the city has nothing to do with the housing stock whatsoever. We could build a million SROs and there will still be thousands of homeless in SF because it is a magnet for the destitute due our generous public services and relatively more livable life on the street than other places. I can get 2 free square meals a day every single day in SF for free….

      It is in fact no different than mexicans coming across the border because there are more jobs and better conditions here. Its just human nature to seek out better conditions. As long as the conditions here are better (services, weather, city allowance of homeless on streets, wealthy residents, etc.) we will be a magnet for homeless all over the state and the country…. No amount of housing is going to change that…

  3. These people that are protesting are probably the same people who have moved into the Mission and made it trendy to slum it and have now caused the rents in this neighborhood to go up and are causing many long time residents to be pushed out of their neighborhoods.

  4. These “protesters” are why liberal policies don’t gain traction in this country (and others). Private property rights are not the hallmark of evil on par with racism nor is housing a human right on par suffrage. They are overreaching with their logic and as a result, they cripple their message.

    When I read the “protester’s” quotes and conceptualize their angst, my initial (and at times only) thought is that they are wasting so of their “talents” and being so unproductive their lives.

    My vantage point differs from theirs so much that I wonder if empathy is beyond reach.

  5. Furthering the Government take over of individual property rights one building at a time.

  6. it was a hooker hotel 30 years ago. A druggie haven 20 years ago. It’s clean now, keep it that way, would you?

  7. I am wondering if this is the same place that was a training facility for people who were in a carpentry program years ago. The place itselt was constantly being repaired and fixed up by these carpentry students. Then a beautiful bar was opened with a Koi pond and was happening at the same time Bruno’s was going through their renovation.
    Then everything stopped and the bar was closed up as was the construction student program.

  8. Let’s talk in concrete terms — what does Homes not Jails want to accomplish with the sit-in? Sure, they can bring a little attention to the the problem of homelessness in this city — which indeed they did. But the members of the group have neither a clear understanding of the building’s history nor any idea what the owner’s motivations have been for letting it remain unused. If the owner decides to restore the building, he may turn it into a commercial space, or perhaps make it livable and rent out rooms — neither of these scenarios would have any effect on the homeless of this city. Eminent Domain doesn’t apply here. My question stands: what exactly would you like to see happen to this building, Homes not Jails?

  9. Does this same guy own all those boarded up storefronts on Valencia St? *Valencia*!

    Raise the property tax if that’s what it takes so that people have to do *something* with these buildings!

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