Earlier this month, news broke that District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown 25 years ago evicted several low-income African Americans when she and a group of three friends purchased a Fillmore Street multi-unit home.
Brown — an appointee and former staffer of Mayor London Breed who is hoping to win a November electoral victory against challenger Dean Preston — told Mission Local that the unearthing of the 1994 evictions is a political stunt, and that the former tenants complaining to the press about their evictions were “absolutely” being manipulated by her political opponents.
“It’s outrageous my opponent and his allies are once again using vulnerable people to attack me,” she spelled out in an email to a concerned constituent. “It’s a political hit, taken from the Trump playbook.”
That they are pawns and mindless rubes is a claim the three former tenants Mission Local spoke to would disagree with and take offense to — let alone likening them, in any way, to Trump.
But that’s no surprise. They disagree with and take offense to all of Brown’s claims about the long-ago evictions.
A Rashomon situation has unfolded here regarding the goings-on at 148-152 Fillmore. Brown told Mission Local — and has reiterated in e-mails and on her website — the story of how she and three friends, all artists without much money, purchased this building in 1994 for $275,000 in probate court.
She says the four of them bought the building after the death of its longtime owner. All three, Brown says, then moved into a single unit alongside the prior residents of the building and attempted to negotiate fair rent for them to pay — and failed. “Folks in the building hadn’t paid rent in years,” Brown wrote.
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Brown described the condition of the home as “a dump” and “kind of like a flophouse” with a revolting mold problem. The supervisor eventually became sole owner of the 2,976-square foot home. After putting extensive work into it, she sold it in 2014 for $2.63 million.
When asked what her plans were when she moved into this building 25 years ago, she said she had hoped to avoid evicting the residents: “I thought it would be something we could work out.”
Mission Local spoke with Mary Packer and Wandolyn Dessman, now both in their 60s, and Dessman’s 36-year-old son, Justin Williams, who was around 11 when he and his mother were evicted from their unit and into a state of near homelessness.
Packer reached out to Preston’s campaign after seeing the aforementioned claims from Brown in an SF Weekly story. “I hit the ceiling,” she said. After reading the article, she Googled Dean Preston and called his campaign phone number. Preston’s camp and the San Francisco Tenants’ Union arranged a sit-down with Packer earlier this month. Mission Local subsequently tracked down Dessman and her son Williams.
All three deny that they are being manipulated by Preston’s campaign, or anyone. They deny that the house was in a noxious state — the prior owner, Gilbert Clark, was a friend of Dessman’s Uncle Clifford, who also lived on-site before his death. Clark, an older African American man, would drop by to visit, drink beers with his pals, or watch football.
All three deny that Brown or her friends ever lived with them or negotiated any manner of rent deal, and all three say they never received a buyout.
But the charge that most rankles the former residents is that they weren’t paying rent. Packer, who moved into the building in the early 1970s, pegs her rent at $205; she says she gave it to Mr. Clark and, after his death, to his niece in Long Beach. Attempts to reach the niece at the 1994 phone number Packer provided were unsuccessful. “People will look at that address and know I lived there,” Packer said. “She’s saying we were behind on rent and it’s not true.”
Clark was a friend of the family, Williams added, and it would have been unthinkable to stiff him. “No, no, no,” he said when told Brown was claiming they lived scot-free. “I watched my mom struggle and get part-time jobs to stretch to pay the rent. So that’s just not true.”
Following her eviction, Packer ended up on her Godmother’s couch and, eventually, landed a nearby one-bedroom apartment for $650 a month. She scoffs at Brown’s claim that she refused to negotiate rental payments because, evidently, she could certainly afford to pay — and pay well more than $205.
Packer in 1996 sued Brown and her three friends for rent control ordinance violations. That case settled, and Packer has said she is unable to discuss the terms of the settlement. But Brown claims Packer received $30,000.
Following the eviction, Dessman and her son, Williams, traveled a more circuitous route. For months, Williams says, they lived hand-to-mouth in a Bayview motel on Third Street. The forced relocation to the other side of town, Williams said, took the shine off his graduation from John Muir elementary to Everett Middle School. “We lived in a hotel and didn’t have much in the way of a refrigerator,” he recalled. “We pushed bottles and recycled to get money to buy groceries.”
Dessman and her son eventually obtained a unit in the notoriously tough Sunnydale Projects. “I grew up in a family-oriented neighborhood and I went to a poverty-stricken neighborhood,” he told Mission Local. “I went from a place where I didn’t see too much negative stuff to a place where I could look out the window and see a person chasing another person and shooting at them.”
The 11-year-old bused from Bayview-Hunters Point to Church Street to continue attending Everett. He eventually matriculated to George Washington High School in the Richmond, which required an even lengthier transit odyssey.
Williams did not finish high school, and later obtained his GED. He now lives outside the Bay Area and is between jobs; he had worked in construction and then shifted to Uber — but he needs to clean up some tickets before he can continue driving. He’s now a seasonal worker at Macy’s and, as a side hustle, he sells wings and fries.
Neither Brown nor the three former residents of her building could provide material evidence to prove the other side is being dishonest. Brown said that not only did she attempt to negotiate a better outcome with the tenants, but employed an arbitrator. When asked his name, she said she could not recall it — and she wasn’t even certain he was still alive.
Neither Dessman nor Packer, meanwhile, could provide a canceled check proving they paid rent — but both noted that a lot has transpired in their lives since 1994, and mementos of this unpleasant time were not cherished items one would tend to save.
What’s not disputed is that the evictions took place. And, for Williams, “it changed the course of my life.”
He becomes emotional when told that his mother and her fellow tenants are being described by Brown as freeloaders. “I don’t know how she can have the audacity to make those accusations against hard-working people who struggled for years,” he says. “She put my family in the position of being in poverty. She ended up ruining my childhood.”