“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.