Vallie Brown's former property.
The locus in quo: 148-152 Fillmore Street, where Vallie Brown and three friends evicted several low-income African American tenants.

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.” 

Mary Packer, in a long-ago party photo.

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.” 

Supervisor Vallie Brown disputes the tenants’ claims. And they, in turn, dispute hers.

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.” 

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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15 Comments

  1. This story gets more and more tangled. One thing is very clear: until two weeks ago when the story of the evictions broke, Vallie Brown and her campaign kept these evictions a secret. Not once were they revealed to the public during Brown’s time in City Hall—10+ years. And the fact that Brown has made her personal history as a victim of evictions, displacement and housing insecurity THE CENTRAL ISSUE of her campaign to play on voters’ sympathies is just gross. The court sources documents have Brown listed as buyer, owner, landlord and evictor. The documents are dated with Brown’a signature. Brown’s story does not fit the timeline as evidenced in the documents.

  2. Also: the documents filed with the court clearly show that the tenants were evicted. It is incredibly brave of them to come forward to tell their stories; reliving these dreadful events must be painful and difficult. After all these people have been through, it’s sickening that Vallie Brown, her campaign and her supporters are attacking them.

  3. “That they are pawns and mindless rubes ” Wow, you’re really putting words in people’s mouths in this one-sided story, huh? This is… not great journalism.

    1. What Supervisor Brown put, in writing, was “It’s outrageous my opponent and his allies are once again using vulnerable people to attack me.”

      As in, these people do not have agency. As in, they’re pawns or mindless rubes being controlled by others.

      Supervisor Brown told me that the former tenants were “absolutely” being manipulated.

      So, what’s your point again?

      JE

      1. Joe,

        Thanks for always challenging your readers.

        Sometimes, as in this column, I’m forced to not
        only google a word (‘Rashomon’) but then find at
        the end of reading the definition that I have to
        view and entire Kurosawa movie.

        Go Astros!

        h.

  4. I am guessing insinuating the tenants were freeloaders is what caused them to forward and have this blow up on her.

  5. Until anybody can come up with any evidence beyond “well, this is how I remember it 25 years later” this story is more or less worthless.

  6. From 1985 to 1988, for a 1-bedroom 4th-floor walk-up in that Duboce Triangle neighborhood, I paid $675/month. In 1994, 6 years later, $205/month was at least 20 years behind the going rate. Even with rent control, the landlord could have raised Packer’s rent every year according to inflation, but he chose not to raise it at all. Over 20 years, despite making a below-average salary and paying from 3 to 8 times $205 in rent, I saved up a down payment on a small house in the outer Mission. Packer did not have to end up in Sunnydale. Self-reliance versus permanent victimhood: Choose wisely.

    1. Wow, Laura – do you want a cookie??
      Even when someone is paying below-market rent, it doesn’t mean they have loads of remaining cash to save up to buy a property. You don’t know what the family expenses were. How can you judge their financial situation, and from that declare that they chose to be victims? Not everyone automatically envisions themselves as home owners, and even if they do, simply saving up for a down payment can be daunting. I grew up in the Haight. Many of us who lived in the Haight and Fillmore never anticipated being evicted, or seeing our neighborhood demographics change so drastically, or having to say good-bye to so many neighbors and family. That is just human nature, not victimhood.

    2. Laura if you can read, Mary did not say she ended up in Sunnydale! Second What you paid for rent versus what they paid isn’t the issue! The issue is Valle Brown Evicted & forced families out of there home and now she wants to continue to do damage to the same neighborhood & district 5. Her Vicious smile and fingers crossed behind her back is not going to Correct what she has done and how many more lies she will cover & sweeten up to sugar coat more evictions she would do or be a part of. This is a fact because I’m a person that’s been in this district for over 50 yrs and know the real Valle Brown & Valle Browns that are continuous covering up there wrong doings & torturing this district 5 with make believes. The day after Election day is over the smiles go away and their money hungry palms starts to itch!

  7. Its a stretch to believe the recollections of an 11 year old in regard to adult matters (what rent was paid and when, how “hard-working” or responsible a family. member really was, an what options were actually available).

    What is possible to believe are his recollections of their changed circumstances – moving to Sunnydale, and what that was like. But what is also believable is that they would not have remained there too much longer @ $205/, whether it was a group of new owner/s or some speculator that was the agent of their change. And also it speaks to the larger role of SF govmint in furthering his suffering (long commutes for education, mismanaged public housing).

    Valle Brown blames their circumstance in part on the lack of ‘Social Housing’ from the City. Whether its ‘social housing’, or some other avenue of resident-ownership, SF has been stuck in the Tenant-Landlord fight-club for 40 yrs, to the benefit of the political class which are the manipulators and gatekeepers of all this suffering. Empowering residents to become their own owners or landlords or co-op members gets either a back-seat or active resistance from those gatekeepers. Well, at least that was an option 25 yrs ago.

    1. It’s pretty amazing to read all this reporting which credulously assumes the proximate cause was the root cause. Does anyone seriously believe that a $205/mo apartment in the Lower Haight was a sustainable setup, irregardless of the landlord?

  8. So despite the fact that the rent was only $205 per month the tenant never managed to save anything at all, for an emergency fund, prior to being evicted? It sounds like they were paying way below market rate rent, they were friends of the previous landlord who liked to come by for a few beers? Great. Looks like the new landlord did not enjoy the same relationship. Her prerogative.

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