Last week, the onetime-stately-beauty-of-a-home-turned-fetid-wreck at 1060 Potrero Ave. caught fire. Again. But this time, gaining entry wasn’t so much of a challenge for San Francisco firefighters. In January, they kicked in the door to put out a blaze and, months later, the homeowner had never bothered to replace it.
“It was an open house,” said Nadia, who’s lived in close proximity to this home for 14 years. A regular cast of squatters has been in and out, drinking, fighting, using drugs and, twice this year, setting the place ablaze. “It was madness.” And, in addition to the regulars, day-in, day-out, there’d be a new cast of vagrants spying the wide-open door, ambling in and raising hell. “After I go to sleep at night,” admits Nadia’s partner Teo, “I worry about fires.” The feral cats they used to feed in their backyard don’t even bother to come by anymore. There are simply too many rats to eat at 1060 Potrero. “Big ones,” says Teo, holding his hands around a foot apart. “Like that.”
San Francisco (and much of the Bay Area writ large) is a place where people will take any housing they can get. Following 2016’s horrific blaze at the “Ghost Ship” in Oakland, cities are ostensibly taking ramshackle living situations more seriously. Last year, without media fanfare, the city relocated dozens of nearby inhabitants of a former auto body shop at 2966 24th St., which a master tenant had illegally subdivided into 27 warren-like rooms.
Action at 1060 Potrero has come more slowly — and certainly too slowly for the beleaguered neighbors. Some told us that they’d been complaining for months on end about vile conditions — and for weeks about a potential fire hazard, prior to January’s fire. Which, of course, preceded last week’s fire.
The 111-year-old home has sunken deeper and deeper into squalor while, just across the street, the newly rechristened Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital has blossomed via an $880 million facelift. This contrast has not been lost on the neighbors. “I’ve called the Department of Building Inspection,” confirms Nadia. “I’ve called the police. I’ve called the Department of Public Health. I’ve called the fire department. I called 311 so many times they told me they couldn’t take my complaints anymore. I was about to call Mark Zuckerberg to tell him: please, buy this house.”
But Mark Zuckerberg has problems of his own. And so do the neighbors of 1060 Potrero.
Roy Miller, 63, who owns the house along with Mario Galande — the two are referred to as “a married couple” on legal documents — blames the recent fires on “homeless people.” He says the house has been vacant for 10-plus years; Department of Building Inspection records for 1056-1060 Potrero reveal that, in addition to last week’s fire and the one in January, both blamed on vagrants, that a blaze in 2000 was also pinned on squatters. “We’re building condos there,” says Miller. He expects the Planning Department will approve their permits soon.
Homeless people may well have triggered the last three blazes (there was a fourth, in 1996, that Miller characterizes as “a kitchen fire”). But this house has not been vacant for the past 10 years; half a dozen neighbors said Miller was here as recently as 2017, and that Galande never left. In fact, after the place was soundly boarded up last week while cops looked on, multiple neighbors claimed that Galande has been nightly attempting to get back in, climbing onto fences or, precariously, stacking compost and recycling bins atop one another (someone spryer than the 67-year-old Galande did manage to recently scale a fence and enter through a second-story window, affirmed a neighbor).
Multiple neighbors — some of whom were already living here when Galande and Miller bought this home in 1990 — said much of the destructive behavior here is coming from Galande himself. They claim he has told the police that the vagrants gathering in the house are “his renters.” They claim he gathers garbage from throughout the neighborhood, often strewing it about in front of the house and hauling much of it within. In the backyard of 1060 Potrero is an appalling sight: Trash is piled up to six feet high; the back staircase has collapsed and has been replaced by a rickety ladder; interior wood panels are exposed to the elements; windows are shattered; and tarps cover fire-damaged areas. “The back of that house looks like something crashed into it,” Teo says. “I don’t know how it’s still standing.”
Court records reveal that, in 2013, a judge ordered Miller and Galande to pay a plumbing contractor $12,223. And yet, neighbors claim they’ve seen denizens of 1060 Potrero emptying buckets of human filth onto the sidewalk. Worse yet, windows facing the home in a neighboring building are smeared with the unmistakable remnants of human feces, flung from a shattered third-story window in the crumbling home. “They do this,” says Elsa, a neighbor for nearly 30 years. “They are … ” she searches for the right word … “locos.” Neighbors here tend to keep their windows closed. You never know what’s going to get thrown your way. And, additionally, there’s a mold-fecal-garbage smell emanating from 1060 Potrero.
As for building condos, this does not appear to be an imminent possibility — much to the consternation of the neighbors, who, unlike so many San Franciscans, were utterly thrilled at the prospect of a six-story tower going up next door. “I tried to work with developers on this project, but they backed out,” says Miller.
A lawsuit makes a different claim. Building Department records reveal a company called Seapoint Construction operated by a man named Anthony Chase pulled a $825,000 permit to create a five-apartment structure on the site in 2016. And, in 2017, an outfit called MACS Development — also run by Chase — sued Galande and Miller, claiming they had reneged on a deal to turn over a 50-percent stake in the property, and failed to clear up hundreds of thousands of dollars of liens and other encumbrances on the building.
Asked about this and other goings on at the property, Miller declines to say much. “I need to end this conversation right now,” he says. That happens.
San Francisco has a storied history of squatting in buildings; back in the day, this was something goodly numbers of people could do here, when even cheap rent was too much rent. The wall of Paul Boden’s 16th Street office at the Western Regional Advocacy Project is decorated with photos of folks hanging out the windows of a Polk Street building the group Homes Not Jails squatted in for more than a month in 1993.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Boden estimates, Homes Not Jails facilitated hundreds of squats; researchers would scour the assessor’s office for delinquent properties and then, clandestinely, make their move. “What inspired us was the commodification of housing and the advent of contemporary homelessness,” Boden explains. “There was absolute frustration with seeing all of these buildings sitting empty as developers were speculating on how rapidly gentrification would take place in SoMa and Bayview.”
But Homes Not Jails has long been defunct. There isn’t nearly the same level of squatting going on now because the developers were right — gentrification did indeed overtake the city and property, for the most part, is simply too valuable to allow to lie fallow (pied-à-terres or vacant SRO hotel rooms, meanwhile, are not easy to gain access to). The “commodification of housing” has advanced to the point that dozens of impoverished people were willing to pay hundreds of dollars to live in a Mission auto body shop-turned-firetrap.
Homes like 1060 Potrero are now outliers. But Boden doesn’t consider what’s happening there squatting. “That’s the antithesis of squatting,” he says. “Homes Not Jails was about creating safe spaces for people to live and decommodifying housing. It wasn’t about getting a crash pad so we can get fucked up.”
Boden’s sympathies are with the neighbors of the home, not its various inhabitants. “If the property next door to me kept catching on fire because the people in there were fucking around, I’d have a real problem with it,” he said. “Just like I don’t think homeless people should be criminalized for sitting down and standing still, the fact you don’t have housing doesn’t give you carte blanche to be an asshole.”
Roy Miller’s lawyer, Matthew Gluck, says his client is “doing what he can to secure the property.” But the problem is, “he’s resource-challenged.” An impoverished owner of a derelict and problematic property embroiled in litigation with a developer is, for the city, a huge red flag. And this home has been the site of many years of litigation. “There is a record of litigation for 20 years regarding this house,” Gluck notes.
Following the 1996 kitchen fire, legal papers claim Miller and Galande, HIV patients on medication and suffering from smoke inhalation and other maladies, were bamboozled into signing an exploitative contract with an insurance agent. A legal morass that still engulfs this house and its troubled inhabitants ensued; hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to an attorney representing Miller and Galande’s legal opponents — whom they unsuccessfully countersued — are included on this property’s balance sheet (as is the money owed to that plumber).
It’s a mess. So much about this situation is.
But that may yet change. In March, a housing inspector referred this property to the city attorney. On April 12, a “task force” from multiple city agencies will tour it. “Hopefully,” says Gluck, “we’ll get this resolved.”
That would be heaven for the neighbors. But this is not a happy moment. Some things may never be resolved. “It has been really sad to watch Mario deteriorate during our time here,” says a neighbor. “Even though the conditions are so terrible, it is heartbreaking to know he is most likely on the streets as a result of not being able to get back in his house.”