Elbo Room’s landlords are serial evictors

Photo by Julian Mark

One of the Mission District’s premier fun hubs, the Elbo Room, is slated to vacate its space at 17th and Valencia in 2019 so that the building’s owners can raze the site for a five-story condo project, where they plan to retire.

“This is part of our vision for ourselves, for my husband and I to spend the rest of our days,” Susan Rokisky-Ring told community members in November 2014, when she and her husband, Dennis Ring, presented their plans for the site.

Their home, then at 33 Cumberland St., she said, had too many stairs. They needed a place with an elevator.

Mission Local has learned, however, that this is not the first time the couple has used Rokisky-Ring’s bad knee and walking problems as a reason to push out a tenant, according to former tenants.

The Elbo Room, in fact, is only the latest in a series of force-outs undertaken by the Rings over the last two decades.

“Everything is legal,” Rokisky-Ring said through a closed door when Mission Local visited her at her current residence at 517 Mississippi St. to ask about the evictions.

Indeed, there is nothing illegal in the way the Rokisky-Ring owners operate. Nevertheless, over the years the Rings and their niece have left behind a trail of displaced tenants, and the series of owner-move-in evictions offers a case study of how landlords can use legal means to flip properties.

Dave Crow, a tenant lawyer and Rent Board commissioner, agreed the Rings have been within their rights to carry out the evictions.

But, he added, “Do I think it’s bullshit to make money that way? Does it symbolize the rot that is pervading our city? You bet.”

Public records show that, starting in 2001, the Rings and their niece, Natasha Miley, have evicted rent-controlled tenants four different times at various properties throughout the city.

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At one of the properties, 130-132 Lexington, the Rings not only moved into one of the units — forcing one of the tenants out — they later used the Ellis Act to displace six others.

Despite the couple’s intention to move into a condo project where the Elbo Room now stands, it should be noted that it is not an owner-move-in eviction. The Elbo Room is being pushed out after its lease expires in 2019. It should be noted, too, that Dennis Ring started the Elbo Room in the 1990s.

Still, the question remains: will the Rings actually retire there? Or will they, as they have in the past, move onto another new property to evict another tenant?

Eduardo Bendek had been living at 517 Mississippi St. in Potrero Hill for less than a year when a knock came at his door in the spring of 2014. It was his landlord, Rokisky-Ring.

She told Bendek that he and his roommates, two women who had been living there for years, had to go. They were being evicted so she could occupy the unit where the three housemates were paying $3,000 a month for the rent-controlled unit.

“I told her I would be OK with a (rent) increase without eviction, but she insisted she needed to move in because of health problems,” Bendek said in a recent interview.

She told him that she had walking and knee problems, and that his unit was the only option.

That reasoning was close to what she told community members at the 2014 meeting about the Elbo Room — the stairs at her current location, she said then, were simply too much.

As the couple has bought property, it is not always the Rings who moved in.

In 2001, a week after the Rings and their niece, Miley, acquired 130-132 Lexington, they sent an owner-move-in eviction notice to a tenant of the building named Christopher Guttormson. Miley was to move in.

Ellen Novogrodsky, a tenant there at the time, said that Guttormson moved out, and Miley indeed moved into the unit and stayed there for at least two years.

Then, in 2006, the Rings used the Ellis Act to evict the remaining six tenants. The Ellis Act is a state law designed to allow landlords to get out of the rental business, but it’s often used in a tight real estate market as a way to flip buildings.

One of the tenants was J.D. Sadler. According to court records, Sadler had been living in the apartment since 1976 and paid $450 per month when the Rings sent her the notice.

Sadler filed a lawsuit against the Rings in 2006, alleging that they were relentless in their attempts to remove her.

Beginning in 2005, the lawsuit says, the Rings repeatedly offered Sadler buyouts. The Rings also sent a letter to Sadler detailing several ways they could evict her, the lawsuit alleges.

Novogrodsky had been living at 130 Lexington with her partner, Stephanie Godt, for more than 10 years, before the Rings evicted them through the Ellis Act.

“There was nothing we could do, really,” Novogrodsky said in a recent interview. “And, as far as money, we got the statutory amount (for relocation).”

The Rings sold the building in July 2007, after they evicted Godt, Novogrodsky, Sadler, another tenant named Gavin Yamey, and two others who Yamey said were in the publishing business. Sadler died in 2010.

“The tragedy of all this is, people were priced out of the Mission — people who were public-interest lawyers, creative types, and nurses were priced out,” said Yamey, a professor, who now lives in North Carolina.

“That’s the loss that happens after that kind of eviction,” he said.

That same month, a similar chain of events occurred at 33 Cumberland St.

Susan and Dennis Ring told two tenants in the two-family building, Ramesh Balakrishnan and Gita Srinivasan, that Susan Ring would be renovating the unit and moving in herself, according to a lawsuit filed in 2008.

Balakrishnan and Srinivasan ended up moving out of 33 Cumberland St. in September 2007. The two tenants had been paying $2,800 per month for the unit under rent control.

Balakrishnan and Srinivasan sued the Rings for wrongful eviction in October 2008. The lawsuit alleges that the Rings did not file the proper paperwork with the Rent Board as they were pursuing the move-in eviction.

Indeed, no paperwork had been filed with the Rent Board regarding an eviction at that property.

The Rings sold the property in April 2017.

Yvonne Spitz recalled that, in 2004, her landlords at 132 Jersey St. in Noe Valley served her and her roommate with an owner-move-in eviction notice. Though she doesn’t remember their names, the owners of the home at that time were none other than Susan and Dennis Ring — as well as Miley.

“They said their niece was going to move in,” Spitz recalled. “I think they burned me.”

The Rings sold the Jersey Street building in 2009.

Matt Shapiro, one of the owners of Elbo Room, said he was unaware of the Rings’ eviction history, but declined to comment further.

He did say that Elbo Room is opening a new location in Oakland next week at the former Night Light space in Jack London Square. He said he plans to run the two locations together until his lease on Valencia Street runs out in 2019. “We hope to stay even longer, if possible,” he said.

He said it’s unclear whether the Elbo Room will stay in the Mission if the lease does expire eventually. “We’ll see what happens in 2019,” he said.

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12 Comments

  1. Ricardo Ruiz

    Renters should not rely on the government. Control your own destiny, buy your property. Do no be a slave to those greedy bankers. Pay cash. Work hard, save, work hard save…. dont make excuses. Save work some overtime… finally no excuses. They cant evict you if you own your property. Viva mi razaaaaa

  2. Ryan MacPhee

    Please stop harassing these people

  3. Grant Campbell

    Ricard and Ryan … couldn’t agree with you more. This city/neighborhood/activist/rental population needs to realize that property is an investment irrespective of whether you reside in it our not! Residential property is NOT i repeat NOT a social safety net. The Rings have NOT used illegal tactics and the evicted parties were compensated according the established rate. And frankly many of these purchase/sale transactions have occurred in the distant past (10 to 15 years ago) and so this hardly seems relevant now?

    • TJ

      Really? You think just *anyone* can buy property *like that*? Get real. Some of those tenants have lived there for decades (the guy paying $450 under rent control, for one). You know who can afford to buy here? People like me and tech bros – and these are the people responsible for gentrification and pushing the art community out. SF is losing its soul.

      • Pat Cogan

        Someone paying less than $450 per month in rent for 30 years should be able to save a good amount of money for purchase – unless such an easy rent locked them into unambitious lifestyle. And Sadler could have also accepted a buyout, which is generally a good amount of money. Tenants benefit from the rules in place for the tenants (E.g. rent control) and benefit greatly from it as JD Sadler did for decades; and landlords benefit from the rules for them (e.g. Ellis act).

        This couple did not break the law yet are being called out for it. Why not call out tenants who sublet their rent control flats at a profit — which is actually against the law.

        People acting within the established rules should not be targeted for abuse by the media.

      • Grant Campbell

        Thats what happens when you become complacent and ‘assume’ that nothing is going to change or if it does its not going to affect you. If you choose to be a life long renter then you have to also assume the risks associated with that. But instead they blame is laid at the feet of property owners. Bottom line is its not going to change in their favor. I blame rent control, the evidence against the net benefit is worth a read.

      • We could have accommodated everyone who wants to live here, but decided not to because preserving rich people’s views was more important.

  4. Todd Jefferys

    The lease is up! There’s nothing wrong with not renewing it by the tenants. I’m not a landlord, I rent in the mission but even I am fed up with anti-ownership rhetoric. Tenants have rights, landlords have rights too! Not very responsible releasing their current residential address.

    • TJ

      Agree about the Elbo Room, but when you’re living your life based on certain parameters and then the rug is pulled out from under you, it sucks!

  5. Wilma Lopez

    Mission local should do a story on how many of these Rent controlled apt are actually subleased at market rate. I assure you it will be > 80%

    • Eric Fain

      If you count Airbnb type subleases I’m pretty sure you’ll find that maybe 10% of all rent-controlled tenants in the Mission area sublease. Where do you get your data?

    • I don’t think your assurance is worth anything, but the phenomenon surely does exist. Rent control doesn’t solve all problems regarding affordable housing.

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