Illustration by Sofía Probert

Everyone knows that the rent is too damn high, but for seniors in the Mission and all across San Francisco, the mental health implications born from the struggle to find stable housing can have dire consequences.

“Every single senior I’ve ever spoken with about evictions reports tremendous anxiety,” said Theresa Flandrich. Flandrich, who has experienced eviction, is an organizer at Senior and Disability Action, a SoMa-based organization that mobilizes and educates seniors and those with disabilities around social justice issues.

As housing prices in San Francisco continue to rise, so too does the number of people evicted. From March 1, 2017 to February 28, 2018, there was a 109 percent increase in evictions caused by capital improvements, and a 58 percent increase in evictions caused by the Ellis Act’s withdrawal of units. (The Ellis Act, passed by the California legislature in 1985, permits landlords to evict all tenants if they wish to exit the rental market altogether.)

This high-priced, competitive housing market takes a particularly high toll on the mental health of the city’s most vulnerable populations, says psychologist Tori Branch. Branch is the director of Clinical Services at the Access Institute, a nonprofit that provides therapy and psychiatric services to those who are underinsured and uninsured.

“Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the people who complete an intake with us mentioned something about feeling anxiety, or stress about money or finances, or specifically housing,” said Branch.

“Things have gotten far worse than they ever were,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of the counseling program at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. Mecca, who has lived in San Francisco for 27 years, said he has been advocating for tenants’ rights for 19 of those years and has seen a definite change in recent years.

Data on the mental health consequences of housing instability are scarce, but tenants’ organizations and counseling groups, like those Branch and Mecca work for, said they are seeing the effects firsthand. And, in December 2010, a federal program found that safe housing is one of the basic needs crucial to good health, along with access to food and community design.

Branch sees clients facing a cascade of anxiety-inducing problems once their housing is threatened. The mere threat of eviction can lead to anxiety; the fight to avoid eviction can be stressful; and increased anxiety, stress or depression can affect job performance, which can lead to eviction. This is one cycle Branch has observed.

“It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg,” Branch said. “Once you lose something it’s hard to get it back.”

Flandrich’s own experience offers an all too common example. She fought to keep her own home in the face of an Ellis Act Eviction for nearly four years, until she was finally evicted in 2016.

She said she experienced fear and anxiety while going through the eviction, and now occasionally suffers post-traumatic stress while counseling seniors experiencing their own housing problems.

“There is this underlying anxiety that is always there,” said Flandrich, who now has a new home. “It’s also the horror of what has happened to this city, that people are treated this way, that homes are treated as coffee beans on the market.”

For 100-year-old Iris Canada, fighting several eviction attempts from her home of more than five decades in the Lower Haight was ultimately a death sentence, family members said. Canada had a unique lifetime lease on her apartment that was granted in 2005. In 2014, the owners sought to evict Canada to convert the building into condominiums. After a lengthy fight in court, Canada was granted the right to stay as long as she paid the owner’s attorney’s fees that racked up while Canada fought the evictions. The fees totaled more than $100,000. Canada was eventually evicted in February 2017. She died shortly afterward, in March.

“Her doctor wrote a lot of letters describing her stress relating to this,” said Iris Merriouns, Canada’s great-niece. “Whenever we would go to court, her heart rate would go through the roof. It would take a few days for her to come back down.”

But fighting sometimes is the only thing people can do.

“People ask me, ‘was it worth it to fight?’” said Flandrich. “It wasn’t just about me. It was about, you know, what’s going on in the city.”

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  1. Iris was not even living in that unit, the court found the truth and ruled correctly. Her family was trying to extort the true owner to buy the unit for a huge discount. Housing “activists” show what tools of moochers they are, when they repeat lies over and over as truth.They just despise the self enabled.

  2. Landlord has to pay ransom and a lawyer to get his/her own house back. That causes stress and anxiety on landlords.

  3. IF the anxiety and stress is SO high about getting evicted why did nearly 50% of the voters vote against Prop 10? To be exact, 169,388 or 47.04% of SF voters voted to make sure that rent control couldn’t be regulated locally. WHY?

    1. Because our housing shortage is a statewide problem that needs creative, compassionate solutions from: Sacramento.

      Because ALL buildings need maintenance & repairs, & starving older rental buildings of their fair revenues means they’ll become rundown & uninhabitable even sooner.

      Rent subsidies should attach to people, not to buildings! Folks who need help bridging the $ gap between their earnings & Bay Area market-rate rents should get portable Section-8-style vouchers. Kamala Harris’ expanded renters tax credit legislation is another step in the right direction.

      1. “Market rate” rent prices for newly constructed units reflect the costs of mortgage payments, property tax assessed at current building and land acquisition costs, casualty insurance costs, and amortized maintenance costs. And profits(we’re told 10% right now) to the investors.

        Those costs are much reduced for older buildings under that have no mortgages(or a mortgage taken out as cash to the owner for tax savings). So older building owners that seek to receive market rate rents by evicting tenants are simply greedy predators. Rent control regulations provide adequate funds for maintenance costs as well as fair returns on actual invested capital. What rent control doesn’t provide is incentive for windfall returns to speculators and greedheads.

        1. Eventually the owners of those older buildings sell, often at at a high price shortly before their death. In a rapidly rising market, pressures on renters increase after the sale. One of the problems is that that the buyer who overbids may have their offer accepted despite weakness in the overall fundamentals

      2. Under means testing for rent control, would landlords ever rent to anyone who qualified for rent control or would they redline to maximize rental revenue?

      3. Doesn’t work that way. In most cases if the owners can’t maintain their buildings, they overpaid. What I see is the owners don’t to go to the time and trouble to file the necessary paperwork or have other reasons for not filing it.

    2. Because the real estate lobby spent over $76 million to defeat it with misinformation, and supporters of Prop 10 didn’t have the time or money to get their message across.
      People vote against their best interests all the time. It’s usually related to money in politics.

    3. It looks like the election illustrates that the housing advocates don’t have the grassroots chops to substantiate their political clout. The housing nonprofits hitched their in-lieu wagon to market rate housing production, and a few tens of thousands of luxury condo units later, a few more tens of thousands of 5 year average tenancies later, the electorate has changed and the advocates have not changed their messaging accordingly.

  4. Remember that London Breed did nothing to help Iris Canada!

    Do not expect anything from the Mayor’s Office!