Real estate agents and investors with plans to visit an open house at a stately Edwardian on Folsom Street Tuesday afternoon were greeted with a somewhat unexpected scene – a motley crew of Mission activists and neighborhood characters holding signs and singing, “If you buy this house, you will have bad karma.” A small brass band played along.
The house for sale was the so-called Pigeon Palace, a six-unit building whose current tenants hope to buy the building so they can convert it into permanently affordable housing with help of the San Francisco Community Land Trust. The tenants say this is in accordance with the wishes of their elderly landlord, but the conservator that’s representing her estate contests that claim and has put the house on the open market.
Tuesday afternoon that open market looked a bit dismayed.
“I had no idea it was going to be this circus,” said one realtor, looking at the group of roughly 70 people holding signs saying “Don’t Buy this Building” and dancing on the sidewalk. The doors to the open house were wide open, but a heap of people with personal connections to the building stood in front.
“I texted my buyer just now, we’ll see if he comes,” said the realtor.
The buyer, who described himself as a 20-year resident of San Francisco looking for a good investment, did indeed show. He said he had no idea of the issues surrounding this particular real estate prospect.
“This is just a great part of town…It’s not like I’m not going to tear down the building and put up 50 units,” he said. Asked whether the story and the protestations of the tenants would affect his decisions, the potential buyer shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s on the market, it’s for sale.”
However, when another associate of his arrived on the scene, the potential buyer walked away saying: “Dude, we don’t want to go in here.”
Another realtor, who wouldn’t give his name but said that he had grown up a block away on Treat Avenue, wasn’t so easily shaken.
“This doesn’t change anything,” he said of the demonstration.
Neighborhood activist and local DJ Jamie Guzzie turned to the realtor, who stood out in the crowd with his brown leather coat and tucked-in polo, and asked: “What does all this make you feel?”
Standing at the fringes of the demonstration which spilled off the sidewalk onto Folsom Street, the two had a cordial though impassioned debate about the fate of San Francisco.
“This is the soul of San Francisco being lost,” said Guzzie, referring to the the tenants of Pigeon Palace, who are prominent figures in the world of the arts, AIDS activism, community organizing, and alternative culture.
“Every time someone moves, it doesn’t mean soul of the city is dying,” said the realtor. “I think it’s arrogant to say one person is more important than others… Just because the building is for sale doesn’t mean these people are getting evicted.”
The realtor, and a colleague standing next to him, cited the city’s various mechanisms for tenant protection and rent control.
“But if these people can buy their own building that’s a different thing,” said Guzzi. “The land trust model allows people with little economic power to band together and stay without fear of being evicted.”
“Assuming they pull it off, it needs a quarter of a million dollars worth of renovation,” said the realtor. “Who will pay for that?”
The realtor also pointed to the building’s two vacant units—one vacated by the owner who was put in a nursing home by her conservator.
“There’s plenty of people in this city who would move into the vacant unit or rent them out without kicking anybody out,” he said. “This [protest] may have the intended effect of scaring away someone who might Ellis Act them, but it won’t scare away buyers looking for an investment.”
At a microphone set up next to the building’s long front stoop, longterm tenant Carin McKay addressed the crowd.
“How many debates have there been on these front steps, how many performances have there been inside?” she said. “This place is an ecosystem unto itself… This could only happen due to our landlady Frances Carati who wanted people here who cared about her.”
Kirk Read, a longtime player in San Francisco’s performance art scene, took to the microphone to share more memories of the landlord who the tenants say would want them to remain.
“She was a real life Saint Francis,” he said of his landlord who would “cry real tears” over an injured pigeon struggling on her front stoop. “She’s a disappearing species, a landlord who treats her tenants like adopted family…When we moved in, she didn’t charge any of us over $1000, because she didn’t need big rents.”
“The big goal of this whole thing is to get this building off the market and maintain it as affordable housing in perpetuity” said Chris Carlsson, who has lived in San Francisco since 1978 and in the Pigeon Palace since 2004.
As the demonstrators began to trickle away, and the realtors and buyers seized their chance to enter the house without getting interrogated, Carlsson acknowledged that Pigeon Palace’s chance to stay affordable and collectively owned by the tenants is a long shot.
Did he think there might be another buyer out there that would let them stay at affordable rents?
“I’d be delighted if someone would come in buy the place and say: ‘Stay here at the rents you’re paying,’” said Carlsson. “But that’s not going to happen.”
For now, he said he was happy to see the sight of at least ten seeming potential buyers who turned and walked away from the investment opportunity also known as the Pigeon Palace, his home.