A photo of a plaintiff's bug infestation. Courtesy of Aaron Darsky.

Seven tenants last month sued their landlord, Mercy Housing California VI, for allegedly forcing them to live in an “uninhabitable” building that a fire had severely damaged weeks before. 

The residents, represented by attorneys Aaron Darsky and Josephine Alioto, are seeking damages and injunctive relief.

“The goal of this lawsuit is to hold Mercy accountable for its absolutely horrible management style,” Darsky told Mission Local in an interview.  

A fire started in the basement of 205 Jones St., a 50-unit, six-story affordable-housing building in the Tenderloin, in August, 2020. The fire climbed up the elevator shaft and damaged tenants’ rooms and the common rooms.

Residents were relocated, but two weeks later Mercy Housing told residents it was safe to return.

The lawsuit, however, alleges that “the Property was not safe to occupy by any stretch of the imagination.”

Residents moved back into 205 Jones St. to find a scene not unlike a “construction zone,” with numerous health- and building-safety issues still outstanding, according to the suit. As tenants entered and exited their units, remediators in hazmat suits and mask filters removed lead paint from the building’s walls, leaving lead-contaminated dust behind. A couple’s infant later tested positive for lead, according to the lawsuit. 

A senior resident, David Baker, alleged he was “effectively trapped” in his fifth-floor home because the building’s only elevator remained broken for a year and a half. 

Mercy Housing, one of the largest nonprofit affordable housing developers in the country and a prominent developer in San Francisco, was allegedly warned of the issues verbally and in writing, the lawsuit says. 

During the post-fire renovation, Mercy continued to receive plaintiffs’ rent and rent subsidies for the affordable housing property. This violates a state law that prohibits rent collection if a tenant alerts the landlord of a habitability issue in writing, and the issue remains outstanding for more than 35 days. 

The building is owned and managed by Mercy, but is overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. The city is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. 

The suit alleges that Mercy hurriedly moved residents back into the building before obtaining the necessary permits to fix the fire damage. Moreover, it alleges that Mercy had no permits to re-occupy the building.

Though the blaze occurred in August, 2020, Mercy Housing filed for permits to fix the building’s foundation that November; residents were moved back in September. A permit to address “fire damage” was filed in February, 2021. 

Rat carcasses littered the hallway, per the suit, and “plaintiffs lived for a year with no flooring in the hallways or staircases, no hall ceiling, and no finishes on the walls.” 

These conditions, specifically regarding the elevator, also amount to elder abuse, and violated a state discrimination law by failing to protect disabled residents, attorneys Darsky and Alioto allege. 

One disabled resident who used the elevator to reach her sixth-floor apartment, plaintiff Lea Curry, says the situation forced her leave. The lawsuit claims that her departure is effectively constructive eviction. 

While Curry was temporarily relocated, she alleges that workers did not dispose of food in her refrigerator at Jones Street, which was left to spoil following the emergency evacuation in August, 2020. As a result, the “kitchen was filled with rodent and roach feces, the refrigerator was destroyed…and the unit had a vile and pernicious smell.” According to the lawsuit, the situation overwhelmed Curry, who already had trouble breathing. 

A Google street view of 205 Jones St.

The workers also dumped Curry’s personal belongings and “looted her.” Curry said a laptop and hundreds of CDs were missing from her apartment. The “shocking” and disrespectful treatment, the lawsuit says, ultimately caused her to “abandon her belongings” and permanently move out in May, 2021.

Curry wasn’t the only tenant who purportedly dealt with vermin. Camal El Sherifi, a polyglot and chef who walks with a cane, had a pest infestation twice cited by the Department of Public Health in September, 2020. However, the infestation remained for months, he alleges. Sherifi, who is disabled, says the lack of an elevator harmed his emotional well-being; the conditions exacerbated his post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. 

During the renovation, four plaintiffs allegedly had to walk past lead and asbestos remediation to enter their units, and observed workers dressed “head to toe” in protective suits. 

A North African couple, Mohamed Abid and Mouslih Nezha, took their then-18-month-old daughter, Zahrz, by the remediation regularly, “exposing her to harmful lead, asbestos and construction dust,” according to the lawsuit. A blood test revealed Zahrz had .03 micrograms per deciliter of lead. 

Generally, any amount less than 5 micrograms per deciliter is considered normal for children, according to the University of California San Francisco. “However, even low levels of lead can be dangerous to infants and children. It can cause lead poisoning that leads to problems in mental development,” a University of California, San Francisco, article stated

After learning about the blood test, Mercy Housing offered to relocate Abid and Nezha to another property, but it lacked a full-sized fridge, the lawsuit states. When Abid and Nezha moved into the replacement unit, they allegedly discovered cockroaches.

Following the renovation, 205 Jones St. racked up numerous city violations for substandard living conditions. In March, 2021 the city cited the building for an order of abatement, the most severe penalty a building violation can receive, in response to the inoperable elevator. The city revoked the order of abatement, which suggests remediation, in October of this year. 

One building complaint involved plaintiff David Baker, 83, who lost heat in his unit, dropping indoor temperatures to 50 degrees at times. Central heating problems pervaded during the first five months of this year, as well as water outages, the lawsuit states. 

The plaintiffs allege Mercy Housing was responsible for the August, 2020 fire, because the building’s alarm system had repeatedly gone off erroneously months prior. In 2012, a fire started in the basement as well, the lawsuit said. The fire alarm system was also replaced after the blaze, though the tenants allege that it remains faulty, and has sounded numerous false alarms. 

“​​Defendants, as a pattern and practice, perform substandard repairs to cover up habitability defects in an unfair and/or bad faith effort to temporarily abate the Notices of Violation issued by the DBI and the DPH,” the lawsuit says.

The 205 Jones St. building is 94 years old, and utilized state funding to pay for retrofitting improvements that won the developer an Energy Retrofit  Award in 2018, according to Mercy Housing. The building opened up applications to potential tenants that same year, based on the city’s affordable housing website. At present, two units are available, the site shows. 

Mercy Housing declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. 

Anne Stanley, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, wrote in an email to Mission Local that the department would not comment on pending litigation, either.

“I can confirm that we have record of the fire at 205 Jones Street and have received regular updates from Mercy regarding the relocation of tenants and mitigation/rehab efforts at the property since the incident,” Stanley said. 

Darsky told Mission Local he expects to serve the papers to Mercy officially this week. Future dates regarding the case will be decided once Mercy responds. 

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

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  1. Who was the lawyer that represented the represent the plaintiffs in this case I’m looking for a lower Sacramento California to follow past action with Mercy Housing could you contact me in my email

  2. Wow I can not believe that some of you are implying that people less fortunate should have to deal with rodent and big infestations!! I mean with what these people are dealing with they may as well live in an abandoned building and there should be no landlord collecting rent to live in those filth conditions. I don’t think you grasp how horrible it is to have to deal with that. I’m not talking about an occasional mouse or insect I’m talking about infestations which apparently these people dealt with. So the landlords who are greedy and agree to take in government subsidies and believe me they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, they get decent money for that, however they are supposed to do their part and have pest control and provide livable conditions for their tenants. We live in a rich country and yet everyone cares only for themselves . We could house everyone here in our country and yet people would complain about how people are lazy. Get over that point of view and just wish the best for people.

  3. Well this doesn’t bode well for the 1939 Market St. development of 187 homes for low-income seniors that mercy housing wants to build…

  4. I was a landlord for 32 years. Consistently the tenants who complained the most were the ones paying the lowest rent. And I never had the slightest problem with tenants in units that were not under rent control.

    Funny that.

    1. Bob, are you suggesting that these folks are somehow wrong to sue Mercy Housing who has “racked up numerous city violations for substandard living conditions” including non working elevators, no heat, and insect infestation? Or are you suggesting that wealthier people paying “higher rent” would suck it up and embrace living in squalor?

      Or perhaps you are just spending your Thursday kicking back and talking trash about the less fortunate during the Holiday season? Charming.

      1. Saaanap. Eloquence and Education brings Tito a stunning victory with his Bob Shut Out Serve.

        He split your wig Bob.

    2. Bob, I am a landlord in SF for over 25 years. I seriously doubt that you haven’t had the slightest problems with market rate tenants. Tenants of all types contact landlords with problems. Problems are not necessarily the fault of the landlord. For example, there are occasional bounced rent checks which I have seen with new tenants who pay market rate. Some tenants complain about noise from other tenants. SF rent control excludes most units that are 40 years old or younger. Older units tend to develop more problems. If a market rate tenant are unhappy with a unit, it’s in their best interest to move to a rent controlled unit. Rent controlled tenants can face rents doubling or tripling if they move. They become trapped by rent control. So we should expect more problems from long term rent control tenants particularly we don’t invest in maintenance and repairs and we don’t value our tenants.

      1. Why would a landlord value tenants who use government force to extort discount rents from them? Only masochists would do that.