Sunday, April 27, 2008

Eviction Wars

In Pacific Heights a charming young couple buys a house in San Francisco and rents part of it to the tenant from hell. The opposite story seems to be happening South of Market, where a charming young couple bought an occupied building and tried to evict all the tenants. One, a disabled man, got a year's extension -- rental laws in SF generally favor the tenant. And according to the San Francisco prosecutor's office, the landlords did everything they could to get rid of the guy.

Now, over the years I've had some bad landlords -- ones who refused to do essential repairs, sexually harassed me, stole my possessions, and repeatedly walked in on me with no notice -- not even a knock. One sold the house from under me and gave me ten days' notice to move. On the day I moved in to a different place, I called to report that the ceiling was pouring water, which was three inches deep on the floor. She replied, "What do you expect me to do about it?"

None of my stories come close to the prosecution case against this couple. In addition to using the usual tactics (noise, utilities shutoffs, nasty notes), they are accused of falsely reporting to police that a homeless man was living in the building; the cops came in with guns drawn, but the landlady admitted she knew the tenant. They allegedly had a contractor cut a large hole in his floor and then remove walls from underneath his apartment, making it uninhabitable. The newspaper reported that some of these allegations are upheld by independent witnesses.

The landlords got a restraining order after they received threatening emails in the tenant's name. The prosecution alleges that the landlords forged the emails and even sent nasty emails to his lawyers in his name.

There are several ways to view this. Possibly the landlords are greedy, entitled, and ruthless. Possibly the tenant is amazingly clever at framing them to look like monsters. But I can see ways it could happen without actual certifiable insanity or even more than everyday evil.

I've bought and sold three houses, and I have rented, and I have shared space with housemates and family -- and they're all potentially volatile situations. We're talking huge freaking amounts of money, personal territory, and all the emotional and psychological complexes people have around their home. It's guaranteed to be a real mess.


The Landlords buy the place (apparently stretching their finances to do so) intending to move in themselves, maybe selling some share as tenants-in-common. They'll fix it up, sell the Palo Alto place, and live happily ever after.

Given Ms. Landlord's real estate expertise, they think they can easily get Mr. Tenant and all the other tenants out.

Then Mr. Tenant digs in his heels and gets an extension. Maybe there has been some argument. Everybody feels angry, and there gets to be some personal feeling in this.

The Landlords have ongoing money pressures -- they're paying two mortgages, they're stuck with this guy, and they're feeling aggrieved. They get angry and resort to childish tactics. Maybe they have entitlement issues. Maybe they're really scared and angry about the money. This guy has no right to be in their space!

The nastier they get, the more Mr. Tenant digs in his heels. He's got migraines anyway and is cranky from the pain. All their assaults are not going to make him feel any better or any more able to find a place quickly. Or any more interested in helping them find any easy solution.

Ms. Landlord may feel a lot of pressure because this was her idea -- she thought they could do the deal, and now they're stuck paying a lot of money on a totally unusable property. It's theirs, and they're caught. Mr. Landlord is pissed, too. Maybe he blames her, or she feels like he does, and she passes on the anger and blame to Mr. Tenant.

So they try harder and harder to get him out -- Mr. Landlord with high-tech, Ms. Landlord with direct solutions like, you know, arson or calling the cops.

And they all end up in court. At least nobody's dead -- New York City had at least one murder over a disputed eviction.

I'll be watching for the results of this trial.

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