Of human rights, fair play, and housing

48hills53walter
The house at 53 Walter where a 34-year resident is getting evicted

The man who is in charge of evicting a long-term tenant in Duboce Triangle got back to me after I had already posted my story (although I called him well in advance) and he’s also sent his spin to sfist.

I can’t explain why Ish Harshawat was willing to spend time talking to Chuck Nevius but didn’t have time to talk to me until I had already posted my story. I can tell you that, unlike the tenant, David Brenkus, Harshawat seems to have a lot of media savvy.

But fair is fair, and I will post the statement that he sent me, which responds to the factual questions I had raised, mostly around why he needed to evict his upstairs tenant when his family members were in the Midwest or DC:

In Indian families it is common for multiple generations to live in the same household. In this case, my wife, baby, and I; my parents; and my brother will live in the three units that comprise our home. As my parents near retirement, they are now spending much of their time here in SF, where their newborn granddaughter lives and where they will retire. My mother is currently living in the bottom unit helping out with the baby. My wife, our baby, and I live in the middle unit. My brother will live in the top unit.

My brother Kavi actually lives in San Francisco the majority of the time and has rented an apartment in the City for the past 6.5 years. He plans to end his lease at his current rental and move into the Walter St. unit as soon as he can (pending David vacating the unit). Kavi currently works at the United States Digital Service for the Department of Veterans Affairs trying to help improve the way the VA processes electronic Benefit Claim Appeals. This job is term-limited and considered a 2-year tour of duty. His responsibilities requires him to visit DC on a monthly basis but allows him to remain in San Francisco the remainder of his time.

We were advised that we could not file an OMI as the tenant claimed protected status; we invoked the Ellis as a last resort when he refused our buyout offer.

I would never argue about his desire to have his family all live together, which is a tradition in a lot of cultures. I will not argue about whether his mother actually lives in the lower unit, although Brenkus told me he hasn’t seen her much and that the place seems pretty vacant.

Brenkus also told me that the lower units needed extensive renovations, and that Harshawat had warned him that the whole place was going to be gutted and fixed up. There are no major renovation permits on file with the city for that property, just a bathroom and kitchen remodel for one unit.

If the parents are going to retire in a couple of years, why evict Brenkus now?

Again, whatever. Sfist says that what the Harshawat’s are doing is perfectly legal, and maybe it is. But legal and right are not always the same thing.

When you buy a building in San Francisco with a senior, low-income tenant in it, you have to make a choice. You have to say that (a) because you have more money, the person who has lived there for 34 years has to leave the Bay Area forever, or (b) there’s some human right to seniority in housing that trumps the fact that you are rich enough to force him out.

The family got the building for probably $1 million less than it could sell for today – in part because it was a foreclosure sale, and in part because there were tenants living there. Just as the Anti-eviction Mapping Project argues that nobody should move into a unit cleared by eviction, I could argue that nobody should buy a building with the intent of clearing out a long-term tenant.

And if you do, because you want it for your family (fair enough) you need to make that person whole. Which means you have to pay enough in relocation fees to allow him to stay in the city.

In San Francisco today, that’s a big number. Brenkus would need an additional $3,000 a month minimum to avoid displacement. Sup. David Campos passed legislation to do require that relocation fees cover the difference between a tenant’s existing rent and market rent for two years, but the courts have overturned that.

So let’s go to human responsibility. This is San Francisco, 2015. The eviction crisis is out of control. The horrors of displacement are legend. The normal rules (hey, I own the place, you can just pack up and move somewhere else) don’t apply because there’s no place else to go.

You have money, you buy a place (at a huge bargain) and you feel the need to move your family in. Fine: take some of that windfall and pay the tenant a fair amount.

In this case, let’s say $3,000 a month for five years, which is $180,000. Oh but wait, that’s before taxes. To clear enough to stay here after taxes is more like $250,000. Sounds like a huge amount of money – until you consider that the price of the building was likely $1 million under its current value – and the cost of forcing out a tenant and relocating that person ought to be part of the price you pay for buying an occupied building with long-term renters who also have rights. Among them is the human right to not lose your home just because you aren’t rich.

If you don’t want to pay that kind of relocation money, don’t buy a building with low-income seniors who have been there for 34 years. Not in San Francisco, not today.

I know that the property-rights folks will go nuts over this, but San Francisco is in a crisis that cuts deep to its soul, and we have to start looking at housing as a human right, not a commodity to be traded like Twitter options on the NASDAQ.

So there. I still say Chuck Nevius is wrong.