The owners of three Tenderloin buildings filed a lawsuit late last month against the city and county of San Francisco calling for the city to clean up the tents on Larch Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and move the homeless residents to a safe place.  

The city’s failure to do that, the plaintiffs allege, has “created dire consequences for the Tenderloin’s residents,” according to the lawsuit, consequences that include increased risk of COVID-19 infections and vacancies at their properties.

Curtis Dowling, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said a similar lawsuit in the Tenderloin was settled this year and he expects more such lawsuits as residents deal with the city’s lack of action on the homeless encampments. 

The plaintiffs in the Tenderloin lawsuit are members of the Giosso family who own 725-727 Van Ness Ave., which includes 31 units and a ground floor commercial space, and Mike O’Neill and Sons who own the apartment buildings at 828 Franklin St. and 880 Franklin St. 

Larch Street is a one-block street referred to as “the alley” in the lawsuit. It runs between their buildings and tents and activity on the alley are the main focus of the lawsuit. 

View from above of Larch Street. Photo courtesy of Denise Hart.

Denise Hart, one of the suit’s plaintiffs and property manager of 725 Van Ness Ave., estimated that there are 30 tents. “People (are) yelling and screaming, they’re mentally ill,” she said. “At this point, we are not going after damages. We just want the situation resolved.”

Hart has managed the building, which is owned by her family, for the past 22 years. The situation with the alley has become particularly bad in the last six months or so, she said.

“My tenants feel like they can’t even leave the building,” she said. “They feel like a prisoner, they’re not able to sleep, and it’s hard to work.”

Tevaite O’Neill of Wicklow Management, the property manager for 828 Franklin St. and another of the plaintiffs, has been hearing similar issues from her tenants.

“Our tenants are working from home,” said O’Neill, “So now there’s no relief when they could at least go to an office.”

“You can’t even walk down the sidewalk, in the alleyway, and it’s just all day,” she said adding that they fight, play music and participate in illegal activities.

Before resorting to the suit, Hart tried calling the city’s 311 line numerous times, “daily calls,” she said. She also called the Mayor’s office, non-emergency police, and emergency police. “Nobody listened,” she said. O’Neill’s experience was similar.

In the beginning, city officials were sympathetic, Hart said. But after a while, it became clear to her that nothing would improve. The usual reason they gave was COVID-19. “At this point, I think COVID is an excuse. They don’t know what to do,” she said.

Larch Street was not included in the recent block-by-block assessment of the Tenderloin, which stopped at South Van Ness Avenue. That study found that since January, there had been a 280 percent increase in tents in the Tenderloin.

Hart installed cameras for better safety, and has been doing more pressure washing on the surrounding sidewalks.

O’Neill said that since the pandemic began she has witnessed drug abuse, heard complaints that one of the alley residents was armed, and recently one of their managers was walking through the alley and an unhoused woman slapped him, knocking the glasses off his face. “And he’s eighty-something-years-old, and he didn’t feel that he could call the police to report that because they don’t do anything,” she said.

Some of O’Neill’s residents have left. Others are considering leaving. “We are at our highest vacancy that I’ve seen,” she said, adding that she’s been with the company for 17 years. A handful left because of the pandemic, and a handful left because of the conditions in the alley.

“I actually have someone who is leaving, who has been in our building for 25 years, that is leaving because he can no longer deal with the alley,” said O’Neill.

As for Hart, a little less than a third of the units in her building are currently vacant. To have a few vacancies is normal, she acknowledged, but, “some of it is due to the situation in the alley.”

Hart also has a vacant commercial storefront, but the tents make it impossible to show.  

Dowling, their attorney, said the lawsuit is similar to a case filed in early May. In that case, the University of California Hastings College of Law, along with other co-plaintiffs, sued the city and county of San Francisco to clean up the Tenderloin’s sidewalks and move those in the encampments into safer shelter options. A settlement was reached on June 12. 

In that case, officials agreed to move about 70 percent of the tents and encampments in the neighborhood by July 20, relocating the unhoused individuals to hotel rooms, safe sleeping sites in other parts of the city, or off-street Tenderloin sites, such as parking lots. 

Officials said that after July 20, they would work to prevent further encampments from going up and reduce the rest of the existing ones.

The current suit’s plaintiffs had tried to have their area, specifically Larch Street, included in the settlement, but missed the cutoff and had to file independently. 

Dowling said the suit is, “literally, pretty much confined to cleaning up the alley for the benefit of the residents of the building.” 

The city has yet to file a response. “We’re certainly willing to talk resolution and settlement,” said Dowling.

John Coté, communications director for City Attorney Dennis Herrera wrote in an email, “We’re reviewing this lawsuit, and we will address it in court.”

Dowling anticipates that similar lawsuits are likely. Already, he said, one of his colleagues is talking to Mission District residents with the same concerns. “I myself may ultimately be filing other suits,” he said. “The city seems to be inviting this.”

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