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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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LGBTQMental health center in the Castro under suspicious threat of eviction

Mental health center in the Castro under suspicious threat of eviction

Members of Queer LifeSpace held a rally at 2275 Market St. to organize and avoid being kicked out before they’re served eviction papers.

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Queer LifeSpace, a LGBTQIA+-focused mental health center in the Castro, is the latest San Francisco small business under threat of eviction related to COVID-era back rent disputes.

On Saturday morning, a group of about 25 QLS supporters­—including San Francisco Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate Aaron Peskin, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, therapists, clinicians, and members of the QLS board, and members of the Castro community—gathered in front of the space on 2275 Market St. to show their support for the 13-year-old nonprofit and to consider ideas to keep it open.

Ironically, Safaí had originally planned to visit the space today to present QLS with a certificate of honor for the work they do in the Castro. Now, a much bigger, existential issue overshadowed any sense of celebration.

From left to right: QLS co-founder and Finance Director Joe Voors, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, QLS Executive Director Ryan MacCarrigan, and Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

“We’re under real threat of eviction at this point,” said QLS Executive Director Ryan MacCarrigan in a speech addressing the crowd. “A threat against this physical space, that protects and support the most vulnerable populations, we feel is a threat against our physical bodies. We all feel it.”

MacCarrigan said that in 2021 QLS and its property manager, Byron Yee of Renior Property Management Inc., had verbally agreed to exchange a 1.5-year lease extension for lowered rent during the COVID shutdown.

Joe Voors, co-founder and finance director of QLS, also has brief email exchange from June 2021 in which Yee recognizes that “everyone is on board with the extension,” although it’s unclear if “everyone” includes both the landlords and the tenants, or only the tenants.

Either way, Renior Property Management Inc. and property owner Regent West Ltd., L.P., have taken actions that imply they no longer consider the agreement valid.

Earlier this week, QLS received a bill from Yee for $176,000. That’s the latest bill in a series of vague and increasingly expensive bills requiring immediate payment to settle COVID-era back rent, mysterious “maintenance fees” incurred while the building was fully closed and unused during the shutdown, and, most recently, late payment penalties.

By Voors’ calculations, the organization indeed owes about $85,000 in COVID back rent. QLS was were willing to pay it, he said, and offered to settle with Renoir last year, but Yee rejected the offer and did not make a counter-offer.

Then, in early 2023, QLS received a new bill for $156,000—nearly double what they originally owed. In response, QLS asked for an itemized bill detailing where all the extra fees had come from. MacCarrigan said it took Yee two months to respond, which he said QLS’s attorney, Alexander Davis of the law firm Buchalter, noted was unusual landlord behavior.

Finally, earlier this week, QLS received the latest bill, which included an extra $20,000 in late fees, bringing the total up to $176,000. Paying such a high fee would bankrupt the organization and halt all services they offer.

“Our clients span a huge range, from teens to elders, people from vulnerable populations who are really pillars in our community,” said Brennan McKay, a clinical trainee at QLS and graduate student at San Francisco State University. “It’s all been so sudden, so we haven’t had a chance to tell them the services they rely on might not be around anymore. That’ll be a really difficult conversation if we have to have it.”

A press release from the center states that more than half of their clientele identify as gender non-conforming or trans, and about a third are BIPOC. Nearly everyone who spoke at the rally emphasized the vulnerability of these particular populations and the need to keep services like those provided at QLS available to them.

McCarrigan said they’ve been checking the mail every day, waiting for an eviction notice. If they receive one, they’ll have only three days to vacate the property.

All this added up to a somber, albeit energetic, tone at Saturday’s rally.

“They’re obviously going to kick us out,” predicted Voors. “The question is, do we leave when they do? Or do we stay?”

This is, of course, a common story for small businesses in San Francisco since the pandemic. Safaí said he’s recently visited businesses all over the city—in the Mission, the Tenderloin, the Excelsior district, and elsewhere—that are facing similarly bleak situations with their landlords.

“Especially when you have a situation where there are existing tenants, it’s important to do everything we can do put a pause of evictions,” said Safaí. “There are already so many empty spaces. So why would a landlord who has a paying tenant want to kick them out?”

Considering there is a San Francisco commercial vacancy tax that went into effect in 2022, it’s a good question. After the rally, I asked a group that included some QLS board members and Frank Reyes, the owner of the hair salon Long Overdue that also operates in a suite at 2275 Market St., who says he’s also been forced out by the landlords, flat out if they think homophobia has anything to do with it. They didn’t think so. Instead, they answered in unison, “It’s greed.”

Neither Renior Property Management Inc. nor Regent West Ltd. responded to our request for comment.

When faced with fraudulent and insurmountable fees, one solution is for the business owners to sue the landlord. However, MacCarrigan said that for QLS would be too expensive to be a sustainable solution.

That said, the politicians who attended the rally might have something up their sleeves. During his speech to the rally, Peskin floated an idea that a former aide from his office, LeeHepner, had approached him with just moments before he took the mic: Interim zoning legislation.

In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors has the power to pass interim zoning controls, which means any change in use of commercial spaces would require analysis and approval by the city’s Planning Commission. In other words, the building’s owner would need to go through a possibly lengthy and arduous administrative process to get city approval before renting to any business that does something other than mental health services, like QLS. If that happened, in the meantime, they’d incur vacancy taxes.

“I’ve done weird things like this before to stop tragedies like evictions of small businesses from happening,” Peskin said. “Of course, I’m always happy to simply negotiate with the landlord if they’re willing, but it’s good to negotiate with some leverage.”

Peskin said that he, Hepner, and Safaí would “put their heads together,” and draft legislation within the next few weeks.

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