Peter Owens feels hurt. That’s what he said in the courtroom to Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a tenant-rights activist. Mecca has spent months fighting for Iris Canada, a 100-year-old African American woman who faces eviction from her flat she moved into more than 60 years ago.

Owens is her landlord. He may feel hurt, but he’s not losing his home – and if his lawyers succeed, Canada  could face a forcible eviction this week.

100-year-old Iris Canada and her niece talk about the case
100-year-old Iris Canada and her niece talk about the case

After a court ruled in Owens’ favor last year, Iris Canada has been living a thrilling life. Every Tuesday she gets an extension obtained by her lawyer so she can remain in her apartment one more week. The situation has lasted for months. On February 7th, the San Francisco Superior Court might decide the finale chord in this story.

Owens wants the court to order Sheriff Vicky Hennessy to toss Canada out within 24 hours. Canada’s lawyers have pointed out that she is frail and has already suffered from high blood pressure and cardiac problems that her doctor thinks are linked to the eviction stress. It’s hard to imagine what would happen to her if deputies showed up and hauled her and all of her possessions out of her home.

It’s become pretty clear that no Superior Court judge wants to sign that order and be responsible for evicting a 100-year-old African American woman. I think it’s safe to say that Sheriff Vicky Hennessy isn’t looking forward to it, either.

But Owens isn’t backing off.

 

It’s a long, complicated story. In essence, Owens and his partners bought the building and tried to evict all of the tenants under the Ellis Act. The owners planned to turn the place into Tenancies in Common – an end-run around the condo conversion limits.

All the tenants left except Canada. An expert lawyer pushed back and convinced Owens that it would be hard – and cruel – to force her out.

But that created a problem: You can’t use the Ellis Act to “go out of the landlord business” – which is what the law allows – and still keep a tenant.

So Owens agreed to sign a document giving Canada a lifetime interest in the property – which included the right to stay until she dies.

The rest of the units sold as TICs. Canada is the last African American in the six-unit building.

In 2015, Owens, who owns the place with his wife, Carolyn Radish, and his brother Stephen Owens asked her to sign a document that would allow him to convert the building to condos – something that would be very lucrative for him and the other TIC owners. She refused to sign the application after talking to her lawyers; she would in essence be giving up her “life estate.”

The landlords hired a formidable law firm, Zacks, Freedman and Patterson, notorious for helping landlords evict tenants. Ultimately, San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Robertson II, ruled in favor of Owens, allowing him to evict Canada and dispossess her from her status as a life-estate holder of her apartment unit.

After receiving an eviction notice, Canada was hospitalized with cardiac arrest and is now in recovery. Owens, after unprecedented media coverage, resigned his post as director of the Office of Community and Economic Development in Burlington, VT.

Canada’s case garnered immense media coverage across the country and beyond. Her fight has been supported by numerous well-known activists and tenant-rights organizations: The Housing Rights Committee, Causa Justa Just Cause, the Homeless Advocacy Project, many others. Local politicians have come up with bold statements in her defense. All of this had delayed her eviction but it didn’t change the outcome.

Canada moved into this house in the late 1940s, together with her husband, who was a merchant marine. She was a nurse. They migrated from Texas looking for a better life. At the time, many black families were streaming into Norther California not just for jobs, but because they had been treated badly in the South. “Even if my aunt had had blue eyes and light skin, treatment of African Americans in the South was horrible,” her grand-niece, Iris Merriouns, told us.

Canada and her husband were surrounded by a large bloc of extended family. They all lived within short walking distance. The Fillmore neighborhood — which Iris Merriouns refuses to call by its new name “Hayes Valley” — became a harbor for such Black families searching for a decent life. Iris Merriouns grew up here. Virtually all of her family has long since moved to Oakland.

Iris’ original African-American landlord, James Stevenson, owned five buildings in the old neighborhood. “He always told my aunt she should never be worried about a place to live,” Merriouns said. When he died, the property went to his heirs.

In 2002 the building was sold to Owens and his partners.

 Owens swears he willingly granted the life estate to Iris. “Do you also remember the first time we meet in your living room in the summer of 2002? You were in tears at the prospect being evicted. I re-assured you we’d figure out how you could stay in your home. I made good on that promise (though some suggested I was foolish to do so). All I am asking is for you to show me the same respect in return,” Peter wrote to Canada, demanding she sign the application.

But the truth is, had Canada been evicted under the Ellis Act, it would have put a serious crimp in Owens’ condo conversion plans. Following the law that had been in effect in San Francisco between January 1, 2000 and April 30, 2005, no fault eviction of a protected tenant would nullify chances to win the condo lottery.

In 2014, Owens submitted an application for a condo conversion. This application contains a field in which tenants declare whether or not they want to buy their unit. Canada received the documents with field pre-completed by Owens, who had marked “no” at this question. “Why did he put “no?” — Iris Merriouns puzzled. “Oh, that’s because she was already an owner.”

The Owens group ultimately filed a lawsuit against Iris Canada. They sought to declare a forfeiture of Canada’s rights as a life estate holder. They alleged that she had not permanently resided at her home; she had violated the contract restriction on having co-occupants; she had damaged and materially reduced the market value of the unit.

Judge A. James Robertson II decided against Iris Canada. He declined all the motions of Iris’ defense lawyer, Dennis Zaragoza. When the eviction notice decorated Mrs. Canada’s door, Peter texted Iris Merriouns: “Iris, you always have power to change this outcome and give peace your great-aunt. The facts are quite simple: the court found Iris Canada failed to permanently reside and only occupied, and revoked her rights. For over 2 years you had the power to restore Iris’ rights by advising her to sign the application that has no impact on her whatsoever. But you have refused.”

Iris Merriouns knew her aunt was away for long time. First, she went into the hospital. Then she stayed with her family in Oakland for a couple of weeks. Helen, Iris Merriouns’ mom, then found out she had cancer. “My mother had cancer, and we had to decide something. We decided: my aunt is old, my mother is dying, let them go on a trip. And they went. They went to Texas, they went to Florida, they went to Los Angeles, on the road — they didn’t fly. We gave them a lot of money, because it was the last go-around. They traveled with a physical therapist and a therapist, and my fiancée did some driving and my uncle did some too. They drove a big trailer. They were in Texas for two months, then my uncle took them to Florida. He is an architect and a preacher. They stayed there, they just enjoyed their life. My mom’s condition was getting down, so she came back to California.” Then Iris and Iris traveled to Los Angeles.

When the women came back, they discovered that Owens had changed the lock.

 

How do you even bear this?”  I asked Tommi Avicolli Mecca. He is a legendary LGBTQ activist, housing rights activist, musician, and poet. “I have my music,” — he replied. He also has a heightened sense of justice, and an overwhelming sense of humanity. He has rescued many from eviction, homelessness, and, probably, death.

Iris Merriouns walked into Tommi’s office in early March, 2016 holding a sheriff’s notice. Five days away from eviction. “I talked to myself: “Oh my God! How are they going to put on the street a 99-year-old woman now?!” Tommi acted immediately. He directed Iris Merriouns to the Eviction Defense Collaborative and their lawyers helped to get a stay, to get a delay. Tommi with his colleagues organized a press-conference, so the story went viral. He called the Burlington City Council where Peter Owens worked: “Are you aware of what this guy is doing?” They were like: “No, really? Wow! He is evicting a 99-year-old person?!” City Council members were preparing a resolution to ask him to resign, but he resigned before they did.

“Then I talked to the Homeless Advocacy project asking to make a motion to relieve Iris from forfeiture. That actually means in eviction case the lawyer says: If this person is evicted, there is no place to go and/or this person will probably die. It doesn’t work in every case, but here it did. Because it was so much publicity. The motion was introduced to the court and the judge granted it. But the judge also allowed the other side to file for legal fees. Which was absurd. The judge claimed that there was the law that allowed that. Dennis says that it is nonsense. Iris was given 30 days to pay $164,000. Mark Chernev, Owens’ lawyer, pressured an eviction order and the judge signed it.”

But the eviction hasn’t happened – in part because nobody seems to want to be responsible for what could be a fatal move. Canada, by many accounts, might not survive an eviction.

 “Dennis obtains delay of eviction every week. I don’t know how long he can do this. We kept actions, protests, press-conferences. We know the judge is listening. I think he cares about publicity. He doesn’t want his name connected to evicting her.”

At 100, Canada needs constant care. It’ hard for her to stay alone in the apartment all the time, so she spends a lot of time with her grand-neice.

 “I talked to Peter once, at the court room before the hearings,” Mecca said. “He came up to me with explanations how TIC owners were putting pressure on him. He said “You have to understand the pressure I’m getting.” I said “What about pressure on Iris”. He said “This is very painful for me and my family.”

 

I asked for comment from Mark Chernev, Peter Owen’s lawyer. We met at the court when I attended Iris’ hearings. I asked him how did he feel pressuring the eviction of a woman who by then was 100. He said “There is law.” He asked me to talk to his client.

Here are my questions to Owens and his responses:

  1. Me: The life estate agreement reached in 2005 served the interest of both sides: (a) Mrs. Canada couldn’t remain a tenant in a building taken off the rental market; no fault eviction of a protected tenant diminished down to 2% your chances of winning the condo conversion lottery. Thus, there is no reason to pretend it was simply your generosity, am I correct? (b) Why did she need an attorney, and why did it take 2 years to reach the agreement if you ever intended to grant it?

Peter Owens: (a) Here you are dead wrong. We granted Iris the life estate for only one reason: is was the right thing to do. Period. At the time, we had every right to evict her with impunity; i.e. without any impact on condo conversion. The rules penalizing condo conversions for building with evictions were not enacted until several years later. (A full legal history of the statute is detailed in Mark Chernev’s 11–1–17 MPA — attached).

(b) She needed an attorney to protect her rights. Every tenant, especially elderly ones, needs an attorney because sometime people try to take advantage of them. I don’t know why it took 2 years. The parties agreed to the life estate in concept in early 2004. I was was told it was the first agreement of its kind to be developed in SF. Maybe that was part of the delay. But, I agree, it seemed to take forever (18 more months!!) to get it finalized .

  1. The original copy has gone — presumably with a plastic bag thrown away by you for fire safety reasons. The copy you sent instead, contained unsigned pages and conditions that surprised Mrs. Canada’s attorney. Even omitting the suggestion that some pages were inserted later, the conditions raise questions: (a) If you really cared about Iris, why would you impose on an 88 y.o. a maintenance and repair requirement? (b) How do you feel about requiring a senior person to be the sole occupant when she clearly needs a caregiver?

Peter Owens: The story that the original was thrown away is absurd. All of the original documents were sent to the SF Recorders office and recorded in 2005. The Superior Court certified the Life Estate presented in court as accurate and true. Furthermore, the core term of the Life Estate has never been in dispute — she is obliged to permanently reside as the sole and only occupant.

(a) As a deeded owner, Iris was responsible for maintenance inside the unit. That’s the way it works when you are an owner. Remember, our agreement allowed her to stay for LESS than she had been paying in rent. The life estate payment did not come close to covering our carrying cost of the unit. We paid for all common area and exterior maintenance costs which are the vast majority of the required upkeep. In spite of this, we always understood she may not be able to fully take care of the place and have always offered to help her with any maintenance she needed.

(b) We also have always offered to make provisions for a caregiver whenever needed — that was never a problem. As I have stated many times, the occupancy requirement was to protect us from someone other that Iris Canada claiming rights to the unit — and that is exactly what has happened.

  1. Are you aware of Sec.1388 of SF Subdivision Code saying that any tenant must be offered the right to purchase her unit? “Tenant” means “occupant”, there is no apples and oranges here. Iris Canada solicited to implement this right. Do you have any explanations for your refusal besides your concern that she cannot afford it?

Peter Owens: Again you are mistaken. There is no first right of purchase. Again, the legal facts are outlined in Mark Chernev’s 11–1–17 MPA. Our position was affirmed as correct by the Superior Court on several occasions. A three judge panel of the California Court of Appeals also unanimously agreed there was no merit to the defendants arguments and rejected all motions for further relief. Both judgements are attached.

Are you seriously suggesting you understand the law better than the judges?

Our intent was always to help Ms Canada, not her family. Over those two year period while we worked out the agreement, “the family” was nowhere to be found. They were not involved. Don’t you find it curious that they only surface years later when they think there is money to be made?

  1. From your letters you seem to really appreciate family values. Do you accept that Iris Canada can have the same feelings about her family? If so, why do you believe it is Iris Merriouns’ interest to reserve her great-aunt’s right to become a complete owner of her flat. Don’t you think that Iris Canada cares about her descendants, as any other human being? It means love. Don’t you think that it is dehumanizing to assume that the only thing she needs is to live alone, deprived from her rights, even in an affordable housing? Can you define the age when a human person loses interests people are usually expected to have?

Peter Owens: David: We all care about our families. But it is manifestly ludicrous to take the position that Iris Canada should be able to give her family what is not hers to give — i.e. our property. Rights were not taken away from her, they were given to her — rights she previously did not have. The granted ownership rights were EXPLICITLY restricted to benefit Iris Canada alone. The rights were EXPLICITLY limited to her natural life. That is why it is called a “Life Estate.” Her family did not acquire any rights. The Life Estate is crystal clear on this point.

Over the course of the agreement’s life, we have subsidized Iris Canada residing there to the tune of 100’s of thousands of dollars in carrying costs and forfeited rent. $700 /month doesn’t come close to covering the costs of the unit (taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance, debt service, etc). But we did it without complaint because that’s what we signed up to do. We kept our end of the agreement.

In what moral universal is it fair to ask us to forfeit our property at a huge loss to some stranger just because she thinks she deserves it? That is arrogance beyond belief. What kind of person would demand that? How is that remotely fair or just?

The plain truth is — no matter how much her family might wish otherwise — Iris Canada did not buy and does not own the right to pass the apartment on to her family. That is simply fact.

 

Lawyers I talked to, politicians, and activists are outraged by the situation and by many of the aspects that enabled it.

Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together and a former candidate for Supervisor in District 5 where Iris lives, noted:

“This whole nightmare for Iris began over a decade ago because the state’s Ellis Act allows speculators to do horrible evictions for profit. The Ellis Act needs to be repealed. Without the Ellis Act, there would never have been an eviction in the first place, and Iris would be peacefully residing in her home without these threats of eviction.”

The eviction, if it happens, won’t be easy. The San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, Housing Rights Committee, and others will be on hand. “This eviction crosses a line. We will put our bodies on the line to stand between the sheriff and Iris as part of an eviction blockade if it comes to that. Eviction in this case is a death sentence, and nobody should be okay with that,” Preston said.

Information on the eviction blockade is here. Editing assistance by Ryan MacCarrigan