The large, yellow 1900 Edwardian on Folsom, between 24th and 25th, dubbed affectionately as the Pigeon Palace, is the kind of building that is becoming increasingly rare in the Mission District: it’s home to longterm tenants whose primary occupations are to advance arts and letters.
On the third floor, prolific public historian and founder of Shaping SF Chris Carlsson lives with his partner author Adriana Camarena, also a leading organizer against police violence in the neighborhood. Across the hall is Keith Hennessy, a pioneering choreographer in San Francisco’s queer performance scene. Artists and AIDS activist Kirk Read and his partner Ed Wolf, an activist chronicled in the award-winning documentary We Were Here, live below. Cook and author Carin McKay resides on the first floor.
But all of their lives are about to change – their home is up for sale and bids will be taken on Wednesday. Given the impending sale, all six of the Pigeon Palace’s tenants face the question of how much longer they’ll be able to remain in a building where most of them have lived for more than a decade.
While the group of tenants has banded together to form a non-profit in hopes of buying the building from their elderly landlord, who they say always intended to keep them there, a contentious legal process is making that outcome increasingly unlikely.
The battle centers around who gets to determine the wishes of the building’s 82-year-old owner Frances Carati. Her declining physical and mental health means that the state has appointed a conservator, Tom Lucas.
Through the San Francisco Community Land Trust, the Pigeon Palace group plans to make an offer to buy the 6-unit building. Carati’s legal team will be taking bids on the building, but it will likely go to the highest bidder. The Pigeon Palace at 2040-2048 Folsom, is currently listed at $1.95 million.
Carlsson says he knows that he and the other tenants don’t have the capital of other potential buyers, but that the existing tenants remain at an affordable rate is, and always has been, what Carati wants.
“She was committed to affordable housing,” said Carlsson on Monday, as he sat in the two-bedroom apartment he’s lived in since 2004. The light-filled railroad style apartment is packed with art, books, and posters from years of Critical Mass rides, which Carlsson helped found.
Carlsson said when he first moved in Carati only charged him $873 and even as the market heated up, Carati barely raised the rent.
“When I first moved in, she told me: ‘I know I could get at least $1500, but I don’t want to choke anyone.’ That was just her value system,” Carlsson said.
Carati arrived in the Mission as a 14-year-old when it was a heavily Italian neighborhood, and she never left. She inherited the three-story apartment building her father bought in 1946 for $12,000.
Known for being a bit cantankerous and eccentric, Carati was a well known presence on Folsom Street for many years.
“She’s a little bit like Archie Bunker,” said Carin McKay affectionately of the landlord who she lived next to for six years. Carati was known for taking in stray and wounded animals and for frequently feeding the pigeons, hence the name Pigeon Palace.
McKay, like several of the other tenants, had long been involved in Carati’s care and well-being. McKay frequently drove her to the hospital or to get coffee.
The tenants say they first started talking to Carati six years ago about the possibility of buying the building from her estate after her death. They formed as a non-profit, Pigeon Palace Inc., in 2012 to get ready for the process. Carlsson says the conversations were serious and Carati was enthusiastic about the group staying in the building.
“She liked us, she wanted us to stay,” said Carlsson.
Things went off course as Carati’s mental health appeared to decline. When it looked like their landlord was being scammed by a group targeting seniors, the tenants called the police and eventually, in 2013, Adult Protective Services got involved. Without any family members still alive, the state appointed Lucas as Carati’s conservator, to manage her physical and financial well-being.
In an advanced medical directive, Carati had established her family friend Patricia Gustafson as trustee to her estate. But Carlsson says Lucas, a longtime conservator, is making all the decisions when it comes to Carcati’s assets.
At first, Lucas was a conciliatory presence who won over many of the tenants.
“He was a real charmer,” said McKay, who explained that initial conversations with Lucas suggested that the building’s tenants would be a part of Carati’s care team.
At around this same time, the tenants approached Carati to formalize their conversations about selling the building to them. They asked her to sign an Intent to Sell form, which she did.
Shortly after becoming her conservator, Lucas moved Carati to Buena Vista Manor Senior Center. Pigeon Palace tenants say that Lucas did this without consulting them and it was against Carati’s wishes.
“All she ever says when you visit her is that she wants to come back home,” said Carin.
“It was always her wish to spend the last days of her life at home,” said Carlsson.
Lucas declined to comment for this story and Gustafson could not be reached.
Nancy Rasch, the attorney who is representing Carati’s assets held in a trust, says that there’s nothing legally binding about the document tenants had their landlord sign, which “was not prepared by Ms. Carati, and she did not sign it with advice of legal counsel. It was also less than 30 days before she took a neuropsychological test stating that she lacked legal capacity to understand her own legal and financial situation.”
Rasch says that the existing relationship between tenants and landlords may have been a more tempered one than all out affection. In the same interview where Carati was deemed unfit to take care of herself, Rasch says Carati called her tenants “acquaintances not friends.”
But McKay, who says she visited Carati a few days ago, says the elderly woman was “eccentric but not crazy” and has been “crystal clear” about her desire to sell the building to the existing tenants.
Carati, who still lives at a senior home, could not be reached for comment about her current wishes. Though in the court’s view of things, what she has to say may no longer be relevant.
Besides her failure to pass mental aptitude tests, Carati’s conservator’s legal obligation is to “maximize returns to her estate,” in Rasch’s words. Toward this end, the building’s sellers have requested that potential buyers all submit their bids on Wednesday, after which they’ll select the best bid which will then be approved by a judge at hearing in 30 days later. In that hearing, any bidder with a higher offer can present it to the court.
Given the amount of money flowing into the Mission, Carlsson says he knows that the Pigeon Palace group won’t be competitive in such a process, but they’re making “a larger political argument.”
As a historian of San Francisco and one of its premiere bicycle tour guides, Carlsson’s whole life’s work is connected to staying in this city. He’s not optimistic about his ability to stay if the building gets bought up by some one new. He says that even if they buy out all the tenants, and pay way above the current list price, many an investor could make a profit on the building.
For the tenants of Pigeon Palace, finding a way to stay in place means creating affordable housing and retaining part of the culture of the neighborhood.
“When you have community of friends, who have calm without fear of eviction over their heads, it allows you to invent things, to be creative,” said Carlsson, adding that the building of artists and writers could continue to add to the culture of San Francisco if they can stay. “If we individuals don’t stay, we’d be giving a gift to San Francisco of more affordable housing.”
If the offer to buy and the appeals to ideology don’t work, Carlsson says the group of seasoned activists can at the very least be a “real headache” to future landlords. They’ve already adorned their house with huge banners warning potential buyers of what exactly they’re buying.
The building has its last open house today at 2 p.m., and its tenants plan to be out in full force to make their case.