Geoffrey Squires sometimes hesitates to admit he owns the building at 3382 26th St., where Jamestown Community Center makes its home.
“There are a lot of landlords who are unethical…and it sucks to be lumped in with that,” he admits. “You almost don’t want to tell people you’re a landlord in the Mission.”
But he is. He also works for Microsoft and he owns buildings elsewhere in San Francisco. And now he finds himself embroiled in an owner-move-in eviction. But that’s about where his resemblance to the negative landlord stereotype ends.
In 2004, the Jamestown Community Center on 26th Street was stuck on the second floor of an ailing three-story building with ever-increasing rents and a landlord who wanted to be rid of the property. The house, despite its charm, history and two spacious residential flats, wasn’t selling because having a commercial tenant (even a nonprofit) made getting a loan more difficult.
Squires saw an opportunity for investment in the difficult building, but also a reflection of the values he had groomed throughout his youth and well into adulthood. He was a dedicated volunteer with mentorship programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, which pairs young low income youth with older mentors, and Isla Vista Youth Project, a community and children’s services center near Santa Barbara. So he was drawn to the community service of Jamestown, which provides a safe community and classes for the Mission’s youth. Beyond that, his partner wanted to live in San Francisco (which was slightly more progressive than San Jose, where they lived at the time) and he saw an opportunity to live “a fuller life.”
Squires bought the building with a business partner and moved into the third floor flat.
The director of Jamestown at the time, Claudia Jasin, said an eviction from a previous space and the real estate speculation of the dot-com boom had made her wary of landlords. Squires had anticipated that.
“Here are two white men coming into a community center that serves Latinos. So it took a while to gain their trust,” the landlord said.
But as it turned out, “He was the kind of ally and landlord that any nonprofit would dream of having,” Jasin said. Under the previous landlord, “every year when the renewal came up it was like being on pins and needles.”
A new long term lease with reasonable rent increases, she said, “made my life as a director of the organization so much easier.”
Jasin said Squires was also understanding about delays on rent whenever money was tight for the nonprofit. He even donated to Jamestown monthly.
Squires was also drawn by the building’s architecture. As a boy, he used to peruse home improvement magazines, and always had an interest in maintaining and beautifying homes. The Jamestown house was a perfect place to put that passion to the test.
“The top flat was a total disaster,” Squires remembers. But he set about making it habitable, and didn’t stop with the residential units.
“Throughout the time that I was there he would proactively do upgrades to our office, without our even asking,” Jasin said. He even brought the mentee to whom he was a Big Brother, Zachary Graff, to help him with some of the work.
“He participates in the local community even though he’s been all over the place. Whatever community he’s in, he likes to participate in,” said Zachary’s mother, Michal Graff. “He’s added a dimension to Zachary’s character. I think he’s a very good role model for anybody.”
Taking an interest in the building also meant taking a loss. Between mid 2005 and mid 2006, Squires’ business partner decided the renovation and financial responsibility were too much, and left. Squires had to take on the rest of the mortgage for the building. His personal relationship, too, ended, and his partner moved out. In 2008, the building appraised for less than what he owned on the mortgage.
“It was brutal,” Squires remembers.
Eventually, Microsoft relocated Squires to London, and he took the change of scenery as a chance to get away from the scene of recent dashed hopes. Instead of finding a renter, he offered his flat to Samantha Greenberg, a waitress he had befriended at a Noe Valley branch of Toast where he was a regular. Greenberg, who was also a student at San Francisco State University at the time and on a tight budget, estimates the rent he offered her was several hundred dollars below market value.
“It was incredible,” Greenberg said. “I think to him, he really cared about the building as well, so it was kind of a win-win for everybody. He felt like he was taking this long journey and he felt good about knowing the people that were going to be in his home.”
The two year stint in London turned into a seven year stay, during which Squires met his new partner, a theater performer. But Squires’ position was eventually eliminated and he was offered a new gig with the same company, this time back in the Bay Area.
Greenberg and most of her original roommates had moved on, and Squires returned to find a top floor of mostly strangers. One of them, Travis Whitman, Squires knew, but he hoped things would go smoothly when he returned. The market, however, had changed and Whitman, who declined to be interviewed for this story except through his attorney, balked at the eviction and hired a lawyer to negotiate a buyout.
For his part, Squires understands the unwillingness of the tenants to dive into a heated rental market.
“It’s just a horrific situation in San Francisco right now,” he said. “The city has lost a lot of its opportunities to prevent these kinds of situations.”
The case may end up in court, but a new buyout is in negotiations, some of the tenants may have found new housing, and Squires is hopeful that he will soon be back in his apartment.
Squires says some of people living in his apartment work in tech, though their lawyer declined to comment on their employment.
Jamestown, however, is in a completely opposite situation. Its community has outgrown the second floor and Squires says he is helping them look around for a potential new “forever home” — and hoping to find another landlord like himself, who might consider helping out.
“I wish there could be a bit more of a call to arms for people who are in a position to buy property to contribute to the community,” he said.
But for now, Jamestown stays, and Squires has every intention to help them thrive by becoming more involved with the organization upon his return.
“My tax guy asks me every year, ‘so, you still wanna keep doing this?’,” he said. The answer is always yes. “Karma’s an interesting thing,” he said.