On a hot day, the third-floor deck on a three-unit building two blocks from the 24th Street BART station might be a beautiful place to relax. But when a realtor asked the building’s tenants about it recently, their reply was a sarcastic negative.
“Oh no, it’s terrible. It’s the worst,” Danielle McVay, who works at a service organization for low-income mentally disabled clients, recalls telling a realtor who asked.
The realtor was showing the building to prospective buyers, who couldn’t help but notice the flyers and signs imploring them not to consider the building. Tenant pushback on perfectly legal transactions is the latest tactic of those wanting to stay. It has become increasingly common in San Francisco’s heated real estate market where tenants will make any effort to save a building from a sale that will likely result in the eviction of the existing tenants.
What’s new is that push back is coming from tenants who have been in the Mission for less than ten years.
“I am a gentrifier in this neighborhood,” said Nadia Kayyali, one of the tenants who works with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s real for us. Artists and weirdos, we’re like the shockwave for gentrification.”
Kayyali, McVay, and their roommates are keenly aware of their own role in gentrifying the neighborhood, as well as the effect their displacement might have on other communities. While all are worried for their own futures with an eviction appearing to loom closer every day, they’re newcomers to the neighborhood in relative terms, having settled there between one and 10 years ago.
Still, the tenants said they’re more worried about their downstairs neighbor, a long-term rent-controlled resident on a fixed income living with a 15-year-old grandson. She declined to be interviewed.
“If we get an owner move-in eviction for the house, frankly, none of us will be happy about it, but I’ll be relieved,” Kayyali said. That’s because the top unit, as the largest and most desirable, would be the most likely to attract a new owner-resident, and might spare the downstairs long-term resident from eviction.
McVay said that if the buyer wants tenants of an occupied building out, “the tenants will still get evicted no matter how many signs you post.”
Kayyali agreed, citing the building’s total rental income ($36,000 a year) to the asking price ($1.7 million) and estimated maintenance costs ($3,600). There’s a commercial tenant too – the building’s lowest level also houses an art studio.
But even without examining the numbers, McVay and two of her co-tenants Meredeith Yayanos, a musician, and Bailey Nakano, an events manager, say prospective buyers have been making it clear they don’t want to be landlords.
“One couple came in, this couple and their baby, and they were like, ‘we totally understand, we totally feel you, our building was just bought too and we’re really afraid of getting evicted too,’” McVay remembered. “They go downstairs, and they’re talking to the realtor, and asking the realtor about how to evict me.”
Yayanos said she was in the bathroom relieving herself when a prospective buyer barged in without knocking.
“The open houses, they really take a toll…I hope someone will read this and think, oh right, I have to remember to be kind. No matter how much more money I have than you,” she said. “At this point, it feels like an abusive relationship.”
Nakano remembers a potential buyer planning out which walls to tear down and where to place a spiral staircase through the floor of her apartment, while she stood by and bit her tongue.
“You’re evicting real people. We are transplants, but we hoped to make this our home,” she said.
For Yayanos, Kayyali, Nakano and McVay, being evicted would almost certainly mean leaving the city. For Kayyali, as a trans person who uses the gender neutral pronoun “they,” that would mean leaving the safety of a community behind.
“If I leave San Francisco, am I going to go somewhere without a queer community? Am I going to be worried for my safety?” they asked. At the same time, they acknowledged, “I’m going to be another person with money whitening up Oakland.”
The sale seems to be moving forward. Frank and Tracy Leung, the property owners, said the tenants’ effort has caused a little bit of disruption in the marketing process, but that they have been receiving offers and hope they will find a buyer.
“We have the right to do that,” Leung said. “We are too old to handle the building so this is why we want to sell the property.”
Patience is running thin among both tenants and sellers.
“You have to lash out, you have to be snarky, or you’ll just end up weeping in a corner,” Yayanos said. “I considered getting a fake poop, just putting a big ol’ fake turd on the floor,” she admitted.
Tenants say the landlords offered them a 20 percent refund of their rents until the sale is finalized in exchange for the removal of their signs and posters urging buyers not to buy the building, which they declined.
The tenants also contacted the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), having heard that the nonprofit has been active in buying small multi-unit buildings to preserve them as affordable housing. This process, however, often involves a seller’s note, which essentially turns the sale into a loan to be paid off over several years – unattractive to many sellers who can easily obtain cash offers from individual buyers.
MEDA’s first offer was rejected, and tenants aid the second would have required them to contribute a sum that was outside their budgets. MEDA’s Christopher Gil said the agency is still trying to work something out with the tenants, and will keep trying until the building is sold.
“The entire atmosphere of this city is starting to break my heart,” Yayanos said. “Part of me really wants to stick it out and keep fighting and another part of me is rapidly becoming more and more exhausted and fed up and just wants to go somewhere that I don’t feel like I’m being belittled or bullied.”