After losing their mid-Market workspace to a startup that profits from renting office space to other startups, members of two leading tenants rights nonprofits tried hard to keep a sense of humor.
Last night, the staff of Tenants Together and the Eviction Defense Collaborative threw themselves an “eviction party” and raised their cups to the irony of sharing the same fate as the tenants they work to keep housed.
“Our organizations exist to stop people from being displaced from their homes, and now, we are being priced out of ours,” said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, California’s first and only statewide renter’s rights organization. “We win big battles, but sometimes we lose them.”
The group, along with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, which offers pro-bono legal services to roughly 5,000 San Franciscans facing evictions and displacement annually, are two of the three last standing nonprofits that are being displaced from the building at 995 Market St. that once housed community-serving groups on nearly each of its 15 floors.
“In the world we live in right now, building owners want to maximize the rents and don’t care how they do that, even if that means pricing nonprofits out,” he said.
Preston had an inkling that the organizations’ fates were sealed two years ago when WeWorks — a start-up that capitalizes on dividing and subletting shared office space to tech companies — began repurposing the building’s bottom floors. Still, he was surprised at how quickly and ruthlessly his workspace was turned into a construction zone.
Preston watched in agony as, slowly but surely, the building at 995 Market St. was “gutted” floor by floor and rebuilt with little regard for its long-term tenants.
“The drilling, the noise, the dust, the not-functioning elevators, and bathroom spills — they have really made it a nightmare for us to do business and help people here,” said Preston.
The collaborative’s 10-year lease officially ends on December 31, but the building has not felt like home for quite some time.
“I’ll miss the views out of this place, but I won’t be missing the construction dust everywhere,” said Paul Cohen, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, about the displacement.
Preston relates the disruptive tactics to many accounts he’s heard from residential tenants who were “elbowed out” of their homes by landlords and developers.
“No corporate tenant would ever be treated the way Tenants Together, Eviction Defense Collaborative, and the numerous other nonprofits who have tried to hang on in this building have been treated,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that they want to take over our two floors as well.”
Since 2008, his group has been subleasing their office space on the building’s 11th and 12th floor from the collaborative, which has operated at offices just across the hall for nearly a decade.
When the two groups joined forces through their shared space, a solid, physical alliance within the tenant’s rights movement was formed.
“Imagine the folks doing the on-the-ground legal work at the collaborative, and us, the bigger-picture policy advocates, sharing one floor, one kitchen, and conspiring in the hallway and elevators,” said Preston. “It’s been a positive, powerful, collaborative relationship. This break-up truly is a sad thing.”
Erin Mcelroy, director of the anti-eviction mapping project, attended the groups memorialization party – the tenant activist also lamented the loss of the two organization’s communal space.
“As far as wider anti-eviction movement goes, it’s been wonderful to have these two institutions in same building,” she said, adding that 995 Market St. often served as a meeting space for various citywide housing advocates. “The fact that they are getting kicked out and replaced by a big group of tech offices — it says so much about what’s happening in this city.”
Poet and journalist Fred Dodsworth echoed this sentiment, calling the groups’ displacement a metaphor for the greed of capitalism.“We need these organizations — this is sickness of our times,” he said.
Cohen, the collaborative’s director, said he feels equally frustrated, but also sees some positives in the inevitable. After all, the group just signed a lease for a larger space at 1338 Mission St. The new location is just four blocks from City Hall, where both staff and clients of the collaborative are often forced to trek for their cases.
The biggest issue, said Cohen, are “astronomical” commercial rents. The collaborative will be paying more than double the $14,000 that they were paying at 995 Market St. The group recently applied for a grant from the Northern California Community Loan Fund, one of the few resources to help displaced nonprofits cover increased rent costs.
“If it wasn’t for the increase in the market value of this building, and WeWork deciding to take over the entire building, we definitely wouldn’t have moved,” said Cohen. “But we are landing on our feet, even though it’s been a very difficult ride.”
For Tenants Together, the situation is a little less clear-cut. While the group has tentatively found a space in the mid-Market area, negotiations are still ongoing and no lease has been signed yet.
“The time and energy we spent on dealing with this eviction could have been devoted to assisting people, changing policies, stopping displacement,” said Preston. “The stress for people living under the threat of eviction is off the charts. For an organization, it’s similar because it takes away from what we should all be doing, which is work.”