Three times in the last 18 years, Edwin Ortiz, 48, has survived the threat of eviction from his rent-controlled studio at 739 Valencia St.
Once again he hopes to prevail as restaurateur Jack Knowles threatens to evict him and two other tenants using the Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to take rental units off the market. To do so, they must pay tenant relocation costs and keep the units vacant for five years.
Ortiz said he received a letter in October from Daniel Bornstein, a lawyer acting on Knowles’ behalf, informing him that the landlord was going to file for an Ellis Act eviction. So far, Knowles has not made an official request to the city.
“I have to decide what’s best for the building,” Knowles said in a telephone interview. He declined to explain exactly what that meant. “You want to work things out. I am trying to do what’s best in a difficult circumstance.”
When pressed, he said, “Nothing is off the table. I do have the right to do [the Ellis Act].”
While Ellis Act evictions have decreased dramatically since the height of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, the circumstances surrounding the proposed eviction are a painful reminder for Ortiz and other tenants of those years when thousands of tenants were displaced across the city.
At their high point, the fiscal year ending in 2000, 208 petitions were filed to take 879 units of the market.
Today, Ellis Act evictions are at a low point citywide but are picking up in the Mission, with the neighborhood recording the highest number of petitions during the last fiscal year, ending in 2011. During that period, seven petitions were filed for 28 units to be taken off the market.
“In our office we joke that they are they are the last working-class tenants left in the area,” said Maria Zamudio, the Just Cause staff member handling Ortiz’s case.
Much of the decline in the Mission’s working class population took place in the decade after the 1998 boom. The number of households in the Mission District earning less than $22,000 has declined by four percent, from 13 percent in 2000 to 9 percent in 2010, according to the 2010 Census.
The legacy of that earlier boom was evident on a recent Saturday, when tenants marched to protest evictions and ended up in front of Knowles’ building, where Tacolicious, one of many new restaurants in the Mission, is thriving thanks to an influx of young professionals.
The restaurant, not Knowles, became the focus of tenant anger, and when a frustrated chef came out to defend the restaurant, few would hear anything of it.
Joe Hargraves, the owner of Tacolicious, said in an interview that he tries to be a good neighbor, buying and hiring locally. By Ortiz’s account, he is.
Hargraves said Knowles has always been responsive to him and appears to be acting in good faith.
“I don’t think he’s the bad guy everyone makes him out to be,” he said. “I totally get the protesters, but there are other ways of handling it.”
It’s likely there will be further negotiations between Knowles and the tenants.
Many tenants who have lived in the city for a long time cannot afford to pay market rates, but landlords who have recently purchased property are looking for a profitable return.
In 2009, after New College closed, Knowles paid $3.7 million for the building and two adjacent properties. He leased the ground floor to Tacolicious, but it’s not clear what he plans to do with the rest of the building.
Ortiz and his roommate pay a little less than $500 for their one-bedroom studio. They were offered $11,000 each to vacate, according to Ortiz. Knowles said that he’s offered much more, but declined to say how much more.
Whatever the offer, it’s unlikely that tenants like Ortiz could move elsewhere in the city at a time when the vacancy rate is 3.7 percent and the average rent is $2,572.
Ortiz and his roommate are both disabled, but declined to discuss their disabilities. According to the Ellis Act, seniors and disabled tenants must be given a year’s notice to vacate.
Ortiz doesn’t want to leave gay-friendly San Francisco, where he has a support network of family and doctors. If Knowles files for an Ellis Act eviction, Ortiz said he will fight it.
“Like good Latinos, we always stay quiet,” he said, referring to Mission tenants before him who have been displaced. “I won’t be.”
New College, the building’s previous landlord, tried twice to evict Ortiz, once in 2000, when the now-defunct school bought the property. That attempt never went beyond a letter. In October of 2004, the college filed for an Ellis Act eviction, only to rescind its petition in January 2005.
In that case, New College rescinded because, according to the form, “One of the tenants has AIDS and another tenant is HIV-positive, to move would be unhealthy. Additional alternative space became available for owners use so that the owner does not have to remove the residential units from housing use.”
In 2009, Dewolf Realty, the company that managed the property after New College defaulted on its loan, wrote Ortiz that it was taking the units off the rental market, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the bank sold the property to Knowles in “as-is condition.”
“I inherited a lot of headaches,” Knowles said. “When New College closed the building they really let it go downhill. I’ve done nothing but work on that building.”
The tenants don’t blame Knowles for the state of the building when he bought it, but do hold him accountable for conditions after he took it over.
A recent incident has further complicated matters for Knowles. Martin Vargas, one of the tenants, sued him in July 2011 for an incident that occurred on September 29, 2009. On that day, Vargas was climbing the fire escape ladder when it “detached from the other sections of the ladder causing him and the ladder to fall and causing him serious injuries,” the complaint alleged.
The suit also alleges that the landlord “failed to regular inspections of the fire escape ladder in the building to insure they were safe to use and in good working order.”
Vargas’ lawyer did not immediately return calls requesting comment.
Ortiz too filed complaints, the most recent on Dec. 9, 2011. In it he complained that the fire escape and ladder were inaccessible, and the circuit breakers and gas shutoff and cable boxes were only accessible in the commercial space.
Ortiz said that Tacolicious has been a good neighbor, but poor planning makes those areas inaccessible when the restaurant closes.
Knowles said he has worked hard to fix the violations, but access to the building has been an issue. The two notices of violation show that the inspector could not get into the building several times.
Neither side is currently talking to the other.