When two people who identified themselves as the future owners of Socorro Barragán’s home at 886 Alabama Street approached her in July and threatened to take her to court for unlawful subletting, she was so intimidated that she bought a trailer and began to move out.
Her upstairs neighbor Gabriela Navarro walked by as the family of three packed up. Barragán told her they planned to live in the trailer until they found a place.
“I became very upset,” Navarro said.
The UC Santa Cruz grad knew enough about tenants’ rights to convince Barragán to unpack and fight back. The current landlord had given the tenants permission to rent rooms, so there was nothing illegal about Barragán subletting, said Navarro. Moreover, she said that the sale isn’t final yet so the new owners have no legal authority.
“Honestly it’s the equivalent of someone coming off the street and telling you to leave your place. They don’t even own the building yet,” she said.
Navarro, who works at the Jamestown SF community center, but formerly worked for MEDA, a non-profit that helps immigrants, helped Barragán and her family move back in and is now advising them.
“She said, ‘Don’t leave, you don’t have to be on the streets,’” said Barragán of Navarro. “So I said, ‘Okay, Gaby, if we all support one another together, I will stay here and I won’t leave.’”
The prospective owners, Ritu Vohra and Arjun Dutt, who own multiple buildings in San Francisco where they have evicted other tenants, did not return repeated phone calls for comment. Attempts to contact the current landlord Harry Beilin were also unsuccessful.
Housing rights activist Scott Weaver, of the San Francisco Tenants Union, said the case offers a clear example of how such tactics often succeed with immigrant families. The latter are particularly vulnerable, he said, for a number of reasons including language barriers, lack of education, a general deference to authority, and a fear that their immigration status will be in jeopardy if they don’t comply with what their landlord tells them.
“To give a very simple analogy, if you were going to bully somebody you would bully the most vulnerable first,” said Weaver.
During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, there were 2,064 eviction notices served in San Francisco – the highest in recent years, according to a report by the San Francisco Rent Board. Of that, the Mission had by far the highest number of Ellis Act Filings and one of the highest rates of owner move-in eviction.
“The Mission is disproportionately impacted by this, and naturally the most vulnerable group is Latinos, especially if they’re monolingual” or if they are undocumented, said Weaver.
Weaver said that a particularly vulnerable time is the period when buildings change ownership because both the owner and the prospective owners have motivations to kick tenants out.
“If you’re the selling landlord you can get more money if the units are vacant…[so] they’ll do whatever they can to try to get people out,” he said. If that doesn’t happen, then the new landlords will want to kick old tenants out to jack rents up – especially if they have rent controlled apartments.”
Although they do not yet own the three-unit building, the new owners successfully got rid of the master tenant in the third unit by offering her a buyout, according to Navarro and Barragán. The tenants who remain in that unit are not on the lease and cannot even pay the rent because they don’t know how much is owed.
This is not the first run-in that Dutt and Vohra have had with tenants.
A lawsuit filed in November 2014 by former tenant Victor Soto alleges that Dutt and Vohra, “have an unlawful and discriminatory business practice of renting…to non-English speaking immigrants because such tenants will be less likely to assert their rights because they are more vulnerable and cannot explain their tenancy of an illegal unit to police officers.”
In that case, after noise complaints from neighbors, Vohra called the police and told them that Soto and his family were trespassers, not tenants, according to Soto’s lawyer Jason Hain.
Vohra and Dutt denied and said the renter had “caused his own eviction by moving two extra persons and unauthorized animals into the Premises,” according to court documents.
Another wrongful eviction lawsuit filed in January 2015 charges that Vohra and Dutt “attempted to illegally increase plaintiffs’ rent, harass, intimidate, and interfere with plaintiff’s quiet use and enjoyment of the Premises in an effort to influence plaintiffs to vacate the Premises.”
The former case is still ongoing – and potentially going to trial in October – while the latter has been settled for an undisclosed amount, according to the tenants’ lawyers in both cases.
Until the threats on Alabama Street, Barragán rented out three rooms to four tenants to help pay the $2,700 a month rent. Afterwards, three of her tenants left to avoid any trouble. Now, Barragán and her family have to find a way to make rent without the added income of new tenants, especially because she said that the landlord told them he will not approve new ones.
This month, Navarro pitched in $1,100 of her own money to help Barragán and her family – but they do not know what they will do in the future.
“What am I going to do when next month rolls around?” asked Barragán. The last remaining tenants in her house are a 19-year-old woman and her toddler son.
Weaver said the solution is more tenants: “They have a right to replace the tenants that left because they were intimidated. You can do a one-on-one replacement in a sublease situation.”
Barragán would be happy to get new tenants if she could, but she thinks that she will have trouble finding new ones because no one wants to be in such a troublesome situation.
As for the tenants in the other unit who have no lease, their options are limited.
“They’re left without anything because they’re subletters,” said Navarro. They did not have a written contract with the primary lease holder, she said.
In the meantime, Navarro and Baragán are looking for a lawyer – and for help. They have created a gofundme page to raise money.
“It was a completely abusive move,” said Navarro of the owners’ alleged threats. “They knew they didn’t know their rights, they knew that they’re scared, they know that they’re immigrants.”
“It’s fine if they want to kick us out, but they have to do it legally,” she said.
When they try, she said, there will be a fight.
“Seeing as they’ve done all this and they’ve put us through this whole illegal process, we’re going to fight it,” she added.