For those involved in the struggle to keep San Franciscans in their homes, the year following tenant activist Ted Gullicksen’s sudden death was both challenging and transformative.
“Ted was the key strategist for pretty much any piece of tenant legislation that went to the ballot over the last 20 years,” said Andrew Szeto, an organizer at the Tenants Union at 558 Capp St. where Gullicksen worked for half his life.
Gullicksen’s death on October 14 came in the midst of one of the city’s most difficult periods for tenants and while the staff has carried on, they’re also relieved to know that come January, a new director, Deepa Varma, will step in.
Varma previously worked as an attorney with the 20-year-old Eviction Defense Collaborative at 995 Market St., where she litigated eviction cases on behalf of tenants and worked to advance a legislative agenda supporting renters and small home owners.
“Besides bringing youth and vigor to the organization, Deepa will add something that the Tenants Union hasn’t had since Ted’s passing – someone who is really knowledgable in landlord and tenant law, and who will be able to be there all the time,” said Carol Bettencourt, managing attorney at the collaborative. “Ted had the largest institutional knowledge of tenant law and history of anybody in town – losing him was beyond sad.”
At the collaborative, Varma helped launch a litigation project that added extended services and representation for tenants in court– the organization’s limited representation was a frustration to many tenants seeking its services. Bettencourt describes Varma, who worked at the non profit from 2011 to July of this year, as very ‘tuned in and gung-ho’ about the political side of the tenants’ rights movement.
“We are depending on a visionary coming to the organization,” said Szeto. “We need someone who has been around in the city for a while and has fought the same battles.”
From organizing Google bus protests to rallying around illegal foreclosures, Varma’s work has coincided with the Tenants Union’s efforts to achieve housing and economic justice over the years.
“Deepa has worked on many tenant issues with Ted,” said Tenants Union Board Member Becca Gourevitch. “In a way, it feels like we are hiring from within.”
In the months after he died, they faced enormous challenges in filling his role.
“He just knew what to do in most situations – so when he passed that was a huge loss. It just came at the worst time,” said Szeto.
“We all really had to figure out for ourselves how to keep the organization going. A lot of information was in his head – so much history,” the 24-year-old explained. “Its unfortunate that we weren’t able to do a proper picking of his brain while letting him transition out of this role on his own terms.”
Steering committee members stepped in to help, and slowly, Szeto and Jennifer Fieber, the Tenant Union’s development and policy coordinator, learned how to run the organization with its 3,000 plus citywide tenant members. Organizing and answering the questions of some 400 tenants seeking help each month were only a few of the tasks. They also had to take care of the more mundane, including banking and taxes.
“I’m realizing how unglamorous Ted’s job really was – 60 percent of it is data entry,” said Fieber, recalling how Gullicksen would come in on the weekends to mail out tenant handbooks and handle the behind the scenes work. She has taken on that work now. “We are all wearing many hats right now.”
Throughout the last year, the organization has continued its cornerstone counseling services, the young organizers point out that the volunteer counselors have not missed a single shift since Gullicksen’s passing. Also, the group continues its political work, endorsing and campaigning around Proposition F, which seeks to curb short-term rentals.
“We are up against strong economic forces – but you gotta keep fighting,” said Scott Weaver, a longtime tenant activist and member of the union’s board of directors. “I think we’ve got some remarkably talented staff who can only get more talented as they get more experienced. We are needed now more than ever.”
Gourevitch said they’ve also done some modernizing – improving the website and setting up online banking. “Basic things that were left unchanged for years. We were kind of stuck in the 90s – for better or worse. It’s hard to do this kind of work without modern technology.”
Still, the group just released a new renters’ rights handbook in September, and once things fall into place, Szeto said, high priority will be given to translating it into Spanish.
While glancing around the room that served as a meeting space for radical and progressive groups hoping to improve unjust living conditions in San Francisco for decades, Szeto promises that it will continue to serve that purpose.
“We definitely need to do some repairs before the El Nino rain comes,” he said with a grin. “These windows leak and they are all rotting wood. We have to shore up our structure, from the inside-out, to keep doing what we need to do here.”