“Forty-four feet,” blurts out Sheila Hembury, anticipating the imminent question. “And nine inches.” 

So that’s how long the hallway is. 

There’s enough wall space between the kitchen and the distant front door at 1139A Guerrero St. for many photos of Hembury’s husband, Leonard Johnson; his adult children; and more than a few handsome works of art depicting jazz musicians. 

The sheer length of this hallway turned out to be a major reason the 76-year-old retired army vet and ironworker and his wife are still in this apartment, where they have lived since 1993, despite repeated attempts to oust them by notorious landlord Anne Kihagi. 

That — and counsel from Legal Assistance to the Elderly, a San Francisco nonprofit celebrating its 40th birthday on Thursday.

At issue was an incident on April 22, 2015. Per court records, Johnson claims Kihagi entered his apartment, unbidden — a frequent complaint with this landlord. When he heard the door click open, he walked out of his kitchen, where he was cutting vegetables for a salad; he was not pleased to see his landlord at the other end of the long hallway, with city inspectors in tow. 

An angry back-and-forth ensued. Johnson eventually relented and allowed a building inspector to approve some fixes in the unit. And that was that. Until, months later, Johnson and Hembury were given a four-day notice to vacate the premises; Kihagi declared under penalty of perjury that Johnson had “suddenly and unexpectedly put himself in close proximity” to her, threatened her with a knife, and bellowed “This is my unit! Try again and you will see!” 

Election 2019: Register now to hear Joe Eskenazi grill the DA candidates and Mission Local and SF Public Press reporters explain the ballot measures. 44 Page St. October 28, 2019, 7-8:45 p.m.

In a court trial, Johnson and Hebury’s attorneys from Legal Assistance to the Elderly questioned why Kihagi never called police, waited months to serve notice, why a building inspector didn’t recall Johnson holding a knife — and how the elderly retiree managed to physically “threaten” or “put himself in close proximity” to anyone while standing 44 feet, 9 inches away. 

The jury found for the tenants. When the city eventually stripped control of all of Kihagi’s known buildings away from her, and another one was sold by a receiver, the legal nonprofit received some $70,000 in fees. That was sweet. But not as sweet as the cake the lawyers presented to the couple after the legal victory. Atop it, written in frosting, were the words “44 feet, 9 inches.” 

Everything’s still in boxes at Legal Assistance to the Elderly’s new offices at 1663 Mission St. near Duboce. Four decades into the nonprofit’s existence, it has more lawyers than it ever has, more space than it ever has, more money than it ever has — and a hell of a lot more to do than it ever has. 

For years, the firm served around 800 or 900 clients a year. Last year, that jumped to 1,663. LAE now features a staff of 19, and wants to add two more attorneys. Its budget has nearly tripled in the course of three years, to $2.2 million, with one-third of that now coming via Proposition F of 2018, “Right to Counsel,” which guaranteed tenants legal representation in eviction matters.

And the increased caseload is exactly what you’d think it’d be. Fifteen years ago, 37 percent of the firm’s cases involved housing and 14 percent involved evictions. Now 60 percent are housing cases, and 30 percent involve evictions. Remember, that’s 60 percent of a far larger number of overall cases — and the figures only stand to grow.  

“As seniors, they’ve pretty much by definition been in their units a long time,” explains Tom Drohan, the director of litigation at LAE. “So, their rent-control rate is even further out of line with today’s market rates, which are insane, as everyone knows. So, the upside for a landlord to get someone out of long-term rent control has put incredible pressure on them.” 

Drohan has been lawyering here for 27 years; he is now old enough to qualify for his own services. For years, he says, the “hardest part of the job” was saying “no” to cases where he just didn’t have the bandwidth to do the work. 

But that’s not happening anymore. 

“Having a whole crew here, we can say ‘yes’ to pretty much every case,” he says. “Because of ‘Right to Counsel,’ we can take cases and resolve them quickly with a call to opposing counsel. If we do our job and opposing counsel does theirs, a lot of these [cases] can and should settle out of court and quickly.” 

The cases an attorney can now resolve with a few phone calls, however, might have overwhelmed an indigent elderly person unfamiliar with the law and perhaps not even aware they’d been served an eviction notice. An attorney can work out a deal in a non-payment case; an attorney can defuse a trumped-up nuisance case; an attorney can, in essence, keep an old person in their home. 

Last year, of the 268 unlawful detainer cases repped by LAE attorneys, 74 percent of clients were able to stay in their units. Twenty-five percent received additional money and/or time and 1 percent were evicted. 

Batting .740 ain’t half bad. In addition, Drohan argues he’s saving the city money. Keeping elderly tenants in their homes in eviction cases, he notes, “costs about $2,500 per case. So look at what it costs the city when a person becomes homeless.” 

While housing and evictions occupy a large and increasing role for LAE, lawyers here also specialize in elder abuse, consumer debt defense, income and benefits advocacy, healthcare advocacy and end-of-life planning.

Drohan can delegate more now and, with 27 years on the job, he’s no longer the freewheeling young attorney he once was. But the high-pressure, quick-turnaround, and high-impact nature of eviction defense is something he’s still crazy about, after all these years. 

“It’s an emergency-room mentality,” he says. “People are coming in, they got served six days ago, you should’ve responded yesterday. It’s invigorating.” 

For more information on Legal Assistance to the Elderly, visit its website

LAE hosts its 40th Anniversary celebration and fundraiser on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 5:30 p.m. at 450 Post St.