A car rammed into Margie Miller’s Bayview apartment building this summer and sent her stove and one kitchen wall flying. The aftermath revealed the damage; her kitchen was “down to studs,” a recent Department of Building Inspection complaint stated. Ever since, her kitchen has resembled an unfinished construction job: No signs of stove, oven, sinks, or cabinets.
Immediately after the July 5 crash, a city building inspector ordered Miller’s property manager, La Salle Apartments, to fix it within 90 days.
In those three months, the 67-year-old relied on takeout and hot-plate meals, and washed dishes in the bathroom sink. Without a table, Miller balances her hot plate on a dog crate she brought to the kitchen.
The 90 days passed, and no repairs were made. Instead, Miller received a 10-day notice threatening eviction. Her demolished kitchen was listed as one of the reasons.
“I feel like I’m homeless, almost,” Miller said about the kitchen. But the notice sent a different message. “I feel like I’m being punished for some reason.”
Miller alleges that her property manager wants to evict her from her unit and rent it to a wealthier tenant. She believes her situation is one example of how property managers neglect subsidized housing despite a deluge of maintenance complaints to push out low-income and Black residents from the city.
Her fears are not unwarranted, said Matthew Oglander, an investigator for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Substandard units and eviction harassment lead “people to leave the area,” and have become a significant factor in the city’s loss of of people of color, he said.
Miller lives in the La Salle Apartments, a subsidized housing complex in the Bayview that’s run by the private management company Related California. In San Francisco, the manager oversees roughly 1,300 subsidized housing units and is part of the larger, national entity Related Companies.
In September, a group of Black Related tenants gathered at India Basin Shoreline Park and told similar stories about Related’s maintenance. Black mold, mildew, rats, and gnats flying out of sink pipes haven’t been addressed by Related, tenants allege. One rat infestation resulted in a tenant’s illness, according to a doctor’s note. In September, that tenant died.
These conditions, plus eviction threats and rent hikes, can lead to displacement, experts said. It also greatly impacts Black residents, who account for roughly 46 percent of head of the city’s subsidized households, which has about 40,013 subsidized housing residents. Approximately 26 percent of those are Black, and 5 percent of the city’s total population is Black.
“If there’s no affordable alternative in the city, and their current unit is substandard or not well-maintained,” Oglander said, “they will probably look elsewhere.”
Substandard conditions become a health hazard
Few buildings illustrate this phenomenon like the rat-infested one on Osceola Lane. Multiple neighbors say the rat infestation became so severe, a tenant commonly camped out in her car at night to avoid them. Then word spread that the infestation infected another building tenant, who then died in September.
While that woman was suffering from a chronic illness, it worsened after exposure to the rat filth, her doctor attested. She, too, lived elsewhere for months to skirt the rats and to seek medical treatment, neighbors said, but eventually wanted to return to home — if it was rat-free.
She “has serious health problems that make her immune system weaker than it should be,” her regular physician said in an Aug. 10 letter sent to Related. “There is a rodent infestation in her apartment. She recently had a blood infection as a result of that infestation. It is dangerous for her to live in.”
The letter concluded: “Please assist her to find suitable housing.”
On Aug. 25, District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton’s aide Percy Burch emailed a copy of this letter directly to Related’s regional vice president Danny Rivera, and asked for assistance.
That cry for help arrived too late; days later, in early September, the tenant died. Death records state the cause was a fungal infection, which was exacerbated by enduring liver problems.
The woman is gone, yet the infestation remains, tenants said. To this day, Burch told Mission Local, Related has not replied to his email.
Mission Local asked Related about the incident and declined to give the tenant’s name out of privacy for the family, but did provide them detailed information about the situation, timeline, the email addressed to Danny Rivera, and the building’s exact address.
Related California’s spokeswoman, Evette Davis, said in an email, “We believe it would be irresponsible to respond without these basic details. However, we can say that Related offers regular inspections and treatments for any pest-related report that comes to our management team.”
A tote bag of issues
Janice Smith, 61, also a resident of La Salle, tears up when she thinks about it. Smith helped the deceased tenant, whose family requested that her name be withheld, send the email to Burch in August.
“Related is not responsible for her death,” Smith said, carefully choosing her words. “It’s just the infestation did cause her to have a blood infection.”
Smith is privy to grievances from more than 60 tenants and keeps all of their complaints, documents, and rent receipts in individual filing folders she hauls in a hefty tote bag. By documenting every incident, Smith believes tenants can point to Related’s negligence.
“They treat us like little people, but we’re fighting,” Smith said.
But Smith believes Related is a specifically egregious example. Off the top of her head, she knows 11 tenants in Related properties who had rat infestations. Another four, she said at a September town hall meeting in India Basin Shoreline Park, never got their mildew and mold addressed.
Management “is never available,” Smith said, partly because one woman is charged with maintaining four sites. Related declined to comment on this charge.
“You put in a work order, it never gets done. They’re not fixing your sinks, toilet. It’s all part of their process to get rid of us,” Smith said. “We’ll get frustrated, angry, stressed out, and say, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore,’ and just leave.”
Maika Pinkston, a resident of Bayview Apartments and nonprofit founder of From the Heart, said she filed grievances for blinds six years ago and never received them. She’s experienced mold, but “not rats, thank the Father” and, at a certain time during a two-year span, gnats flew straight out of her kitchen sink pipes. When she complained to management, she said, they sent a memo alleging poor housekeeping.
“It be gross. I have to put bleach on the towels and stick them down from the sink,” Pinkston said.
Davis, from Related, said there have been two work orders placed about gnat incidents and they are being addressed.
On top of building conditions, Pinkston alleges management disrespects tenants and elders constantly. “Their job is to create a hostile environment so they can leave. They want to get the native Black Americans out, and other people to live here and gentrify.”
For years, it has been well documented that poor housing conditions can affect displacement. To “retain African Americans in the city,” San Francisco should preserve the housing stock “especially for very low-income African Americans,” who make up a large percentage of subsidized housing, said a 2009 city out-migration report.
A San Francisco State report showed both low-income and middle-income African Americans fled San Francisco to the suburbs of Antioch, Pittsburg, Brentwood, and Stockton.
Smith and Pinkston want to stay in their homes, albeit with proper upkeep. Along with other tenants, they drafted a petition demanding management be “100 percent responsible for all the abatement needs” of Related properties. As of early October, it has 80 signatures.
In early October, Davis said “no grievances have been filed,” and without those, problems won’t be fixed.
“Related Management Company has a long-established process for filing and responding to tenant service requests, and a track record of completing these requests in a timely manner,” Davis said. “While RMC has the staff required to respond to all requests, it cannot address issues that haven’t been reported,” she continued.
But tenants allege they have been filing grievances and work orders to Related that still go ignored. They filed complaints to the Department of Building Inspection, which notifies the property manager, and sent emails to politicians, the Department of Public Health, or anyone who will listen, in hopes of putting pressure on Related. Copies of many of those documents are safely tucked in Smith’s folders.
Move it, or lose it
Miller said that Related serving her with a 10-day eviction notice three months after her kitchen has gone unaddressed tells her that Related wants to replace her with a tenant who can pay more.
“How are you not going to meet a deadline to fix something, and then after that give me a notice?” Miller said. “That’s negligence. That’s harassment. ”
Related cannot fix the kitchen unless Miller transfers to another unit during repairs, Davis said.
But the Department of Building Inspection inspectors never wrote that in the original notice of violation following the crash, and stressed she did not have to move.
While the notice of violation did require the gas line to be shut off temporarily, Peter Eisenbeiser, the DBI inspector who wrote the initial report, found “no severe structural damage” to the building that would require Miller to move.
“I remember she did not want to vacate the premises. I was okay with that,” Eisenbeiser said. “I’m a little disappointed that she hasn’t been taken care of, and in the time allotted.”
“We never said she had to move out. Cut and dry there,” said Philip Saunders, a DBI inspector assigned to follow up with Miller’s complaint. “I just want to see her kitchen fixed.”
In October, Saunders alerted the housing inspection services for enforcement. On Oct. 13, DBI posted another complaint addressed to La Salle on Miller’s building, and in capital letters, ordered management to “PROVIDE KITCHEN.”
In late July, Related offered to immediately move Miller into different apartments on the property and cover all moving expenses, Davis said. These were temporary moves for repairs, and one, on 30 Whitfield Ct., was across the street. Miller refused. “It is our hope that she will take us up on this offer … as soon as possible,” Davis said.
Miller confirmed she was offered another place, but said she didn’t want to move from her home if she didn’t have to. And the 67-year-old contends the first suggestion for a replacement apartment was on Osceola Lane, the same lane that housed the deceased tenant’s rat-infested building. A viral video of an Asian man being physically assaulted also reportedly occurred near there, Miller said.
The unit on 30 Whitfield Ct. had fewer bedrooms than her current one, she said, so she rejected it. And, she said, the DBI inspectors said she didn’t have to move.
Once the 90 days had passed without repairs, Related took temporary transfers off the table. They served Miller the 10-day notice, which states she must “permanently transfer to a different unit” on the property or face eviction. Related didn’t comment why.
“It was temporary at first, then later ‘permanent.’ They tryna trick me,” Miller said. She said despite the litany of other issues she’s endured in recent years — rats “made a home” of her stove, a carbon monoxide leak — these were never fixed, nor was she told to change units. All of these incidents were documented via police reports, Pacific Gas & Electric Company statements, doctor’s notes, and even a La Salle work order that said “there is currently a flood of mice in the closet. Please come to see for yourself.” Mission Local reviewed all of these.
No one came to help with the rats and roaches, Miller said. Over two years, she paid for extermination herself. The 2019 gas leak was fixed, but required a wall to be partially removed. The contractors never reattached the wall, she said. It fell off on July 5, when the car crashed into her place.
“How can they demand anything if they ain’t doing anything they’re supposed to do?” Miller said. “I’m the victim here. I should demand stuff.”
According to the notice, Miller could also be evicted because she failed to recertify, a process where the property manager recalculates a subsidized tenant’s rent, usually on an annual basis. Miller said Related hasn’t asked her to recertify since 2019. At that time, she refused to recertify, because her rent jumped by $400. Related offered no reason for the increase.
Instead, Related stopped accepting her rent payments. As of July 2019, they have returned all rent payments except, confusingly, her August 2019, payment.
According to the notice, Miller faces eviction if she doesn’t recertify in 10 days or by Oct. 14. Recertification documents were not sent in 2021. Miller “fully intends to comply, but she must first receive the necessary documents,” said an email from Miller’s attorney, addressed to Related’s lawyers. Miller’s attorney asked Related’s representation to extend the 10-day period.
Davis said the company has offered to help her recertify “as soon as possible.”
Miller, however, thinks the recertification resurfaced anew in tandem with the building complaint, to kick her out. It points to a larger problem about how Black and low-income subsidized tenants are treated, she said. “They tryna cover up the mess they doin’,” Miller said. “They’re going to keep doing this until someone stops them.”
Clarification: this article was updated to clarify the 46 percent of subsidized housing head of households identify as Black. 26 percent of subsidized residents are Black.