Those living on the Mission District’s iconic mural-laden Balmy Alley know Andrés Rojo as its unofficial “mayor.” The 54-year-old Latino artist and bicycle repairman has, for years, fixed up locals’ bikes in the garage where he also lives, at 7-9 Balmy Alley.
So last week, when a jury ruled in favor of Rojo’s eviction from the garage on the basis that it was a nuisance and fire hazard, the community was outraged. On Monday, Rojo’s attorneys officially filed for a stay, pending appeal, which means that if an appeal is granted he will not be evicted. In case that fails, they also filed a petition to delay any eviction for at least 40 days.
“I’m a Latino guy living in the heart of the Mission, providing a service to the community. The astonishing thing is, I know everybody who comes here, and the first thing [my landlords] do is call me a nuisance,” he told Mission Local. “All of these years, none of the neighbors had any complaints about me.”
But the stay-pending-appeal trial on Monday casts doubts on whether Rojo will succeed in overturning his eviction. He may get to keep the space for bikes, but being able to live there seems unlikely.
The fact that Rojo lived in the garage was news to San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, who presided Monday. The judge explained that the original eviction case filed by his landlord only explicitly referred to 7-9 Balmy Alley as a “commercial space” and not a residence. Massullo didn’t believe she could accept a stay pending appeal if Rojo would live in an inhabitable space.
Massullo asked if the garage had any basic necessities required by the housing code: Adequate ventilation pipes, heating, running water, a toilet or bathroom? “No,” said Rojo’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic attorney, Raquel Fox.
Allowing Rojo to live there would be illegal, Massullo said. Despite Fox’s protest that several people live in illegal units, the judge didn’t waver.
“That’s what’s being requested of the court right now — an order saying you can live in an area that doesn’t even have a toilet,” Massullo said. “I can’t do that.”
Fox said Rojo should at least be allowed access to the garage space, which she argued was no longer a fire hazard. Rojo told Mission Local and the court that he removed all flammable items, including a propane stove, welding equipment, oil rags and extension cord. Fox presented a video recorded that Monday showing a garage full of bicycles, boxes, and papers — one that’s orderly and tidy, with space to walk through.
Neighbors also submitted letters affirming that they have no complaints. When asked, four neighbors stood up in support in court, including the director of Office of Economic Workforce and Development, Joshua Arce.
Rojo’s space has also become a place where neighbors hang out, and some 50 community members showed up to court Monday. Filling the seats were El Rio bartenders, 24th Street business owners, Supervisor Hillary Ronen and, of course, the Latinx community, which spilled over into the hallway. Locals passed around a petition against his eviction that gained more than 200 signatures.
Since Rojo has no savings and San Francisco rents are expensive, if evicted from his home of many years, Rojo could end up living in his car, Fox said.
Rojo lived on Balmy Alley, in an upstairs unit, from 2001 to 2003. Wwith the landlord’s permission, he kept the garage as a work and storage space, he told Mission Local. Rojo moved back into the garage officially in 2017, and has lived there since. There is a small room in the back where he sleeps, but there’s no toilet or other basic amenities, he said.
Last May, his landlord bought him a hot chocolate and broke the news: Rojo’s garage was “a liability” and a danger to neighbors. He must move out.
The artist said he offered to buy insurance and clear the garage of flammable items. “They just wanted me out. They didn’t give me any chance to repair it,” Rojo said.
At the eviction trial, his landlord’s wife “testified that the building insurance will not cover fire from Mr. Rojo’s use of the garage for bicycle business,” court documents read.
Mission Local has reached out to Bravo, but has not received a response. This article will be updated if he does.
Bravo, a housing attorney, represented himself and argued against the pending stay appeal. He said that the wood-frame building containing the garage and its upstairs tenants were still vulnerable to a fire, and pointed out multiple flammable items, like paper and boxes, eliciting snickers from Rojo’s supporters. He added the city housing code 603 states only cars may be stored in garages, and Bravo would not face “extreme” hardship if evicted.
“He’s a great guy. I’m proud of the people of San Francisco coming out to support Mr. Rojo,” said Bravo. “But this is about fire safety. This is not about whether someone has shown themselves to be a great person in the community.”
To help determine the pending stay appeal, Judge Massullo ordered both the plaintiff and defendant to submit additional briefs that analyze a similar case and the garage’s habitability to investigate whether Rojo’s removal would cause “irreparable harm” or “extreme hardship.” Massullo agreed to not order a judgment to evict Rojo until after the supplemental deadline, April 13.
“These are very unique, interesting circumstances. But it’s the obligation to make sure that it follows the law,” Massullo said.
Fox told Mission Local she intends to file an appeal after a judgment is made.
Rojo said that he doubts he will win the stay, or an appeal, but hopes to at least extend his eviction by 40 days.
What saddens Rojo most is removal from the garage and thus, the Balmy Alley and the Mission community, historic mainstays for low-income Latinx artists like him. On the alley, he formed a family that gave to him as much as he gave them; he drives an elderly neighbor to doctors’ appointments, and a couple brings him lunch. “I was always working people out front, I have and welcome people to just come and hang. It’s an inclusive place,” Rojo said.
When the court adjourned, his supporters stood outside the hall waiting. They watched the Balmy Avenue Mayor walk out, and roared.