Elderly Family’s Eviction Fuels Growing San Francisco Housing Rights Movement
A multi-racial, multi-generational crowd packs Mission District Streets for Oct. 12 “Our Mission No Eviction” rally.
Photo Credit: Christopher D. Cook
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On a glaring-hot, near-cloudless day in San Francisco Sept. 25, an elderly Chinese American couple, Gum Gee Lee and her husband Poon Heung Lee—and their disabled 48 year-old daughter Shiuman Lee—were about to be physically removed from their home of 34 years by deputy sheriffs following a court order to carry out yet anoth er Ellis Act eviction--enabled by California law that allows landlords to take housing off the rental market and sell it.
Landlord Matthew Miller, who bought the 1506 Jackson Street building (along with neighboring units) in 2012 for $1.2 million, demanded the Lee family vacate the property so he could turn the units into upscale tenancies-in-common and turn a huge profit in San Francisco’s searing-hot real estate market.
Following the mass protest, prime-time media attention, and pressure from city leaders, the Lee family gained a temporary reprieve to seek a new home—an inspiring if temporary victory.
But this Tuesday, facing certain eviction the following morning, the family left their home for the final time--joining the skyrocketing ranks of San Francisco evictees. "I don't feel good about this," Gum, 74, told the San Francisco Examiner as the family packed up all their worldly possessions, which will be put in storage while they stay in a hotel and continue seeking an affordable new home. "I don't know where we will go next but we have no choice. We have to go."
The Lee family is one instance of a twin tsunami hitting San Francisco communities: soaring evictions, and skyrocketing rents. According to data compiled by the Tenants Union, Ellis Act evictions (in which landlords remove rental units from the market and turn them into highly remunerative condos and tenancies-in-common) have tripled since 2011. Overall, no-fault evictions (when a landlord evicts a tenant despite the tenant not having violated their lease) have shot up from 687 in 2011, to 1023 and counting in 2013.
Inside the Lee home on the day of the scheduled eviction, while hundreds of protesters packed the sidewalks out front, I spoke briefly with 74-year-old Gum Gee Lee as they prepared to be ousted from their home. A whole life was there: family photos, a prayer spot with incense and candles, couch, TV, movies, music, a kitchen full of cookware and food (some freshly cooked on the stove), neatly kept bedroom, wall calendar, a whole life erected over years, about to be torn down.
“San Francisco has many things that are unfair,” Lee told me through a family friend who translated from Cantonese. “San Francisco should do more to protect the housing of people. Hopefully the government will do something about this.”
In the dimly lit long narrow hallway, another family friend added: “it’s not fair that someone tells you that you have to go—that’s not freedom.”
The Lee family, living in their $800-a-month apartment primarily on social security and disability benefits, had nowhere to go and couldn’t find any affordable housing options in the city after intensive searching. As Omar Calimbas, senior attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Asian Law Caucus explained to the crowd, “The Lee family applied for affordable housing, but nobody took them. They asked Miller, ‘can you just help us find another place to live,’ and his response was a court order for their eviction.”
Calimbas added, “They could lose their home, their life.” The judge had denied the Lee’s final appeals, emphasizing “the damage the landlord could suffer if his deal fell apart,” Calimbas said.
Miller’s attorneys stood across the street with a locksmith they hired parked nearby, ready to secure the building upon the Lee’s removal by sheriff’s deputies. The men refused to comment or identify themselves by name or firm, though one when questioned, admitted, “No, it’s not fun” helping Miller to evict and remove the tenants. When I attempted to interview the locksmith, one of Miller’s attorneys strode up to us quickly and said, “You have no comment, right?”