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Elderly Family’s Eviction Fuels Growing San Francisco Housing Rights Movement

The Lee family is one instance of a twin tsunami hitting San Francisco communities: soaring evictions and skyrocketing rents.

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Matthew Miller began evicting and buying out tenants from Jackson Street soon after purchasing the building, one of a handful of real estate property LLC’s (Limited Liability Corporations) he operates in San Francisco. It’s not Miller’s first speculation-driven eviction. In 2009, Miller “evicted low-income tenants from a rent-controlled property in North Beach and resold it as market rate tenancy-in-common (TIC) units,” according to a background document on the Lee family eviction, prepared by Calimbas.

Miller’s real estate firm, Designer Dwellings, is described on his LinkedIn profile as a “San Francisco-based property development company that focuses on renovating and converting multi-unit residential apartment buildings into housing for first-time buyers.”

Designer Dwellings, which Miller launched in 2005, has minimal online presence and no detectable business registration in San Francisco. Before getting into speculative real estate, Miller, an Anderson School of Business grad, held positions as a Director at PayPal and eBay, and Senior Manager at Mondex USA and Wells Fargo.
Miller did not return this writer’s request for comment.

Back on Jackson Street, under a scalding September sun, a couple hundred protesters from across the city—spanning an array of housing and tenants’ rights groups, Chinese-American community and neighborhood advocates, labor, and others, joined by Supervisors Jane Kim, David Campos, and David Chiu—amassed for a day-long resistance that led to the eviction being postponed.

As the pressure built over the next several days, from grassroots movements to city Supervisors and mainstream media, Mayor Ed Lee– the one-time tenants’ rights lawyer for Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) who spearheaded big tax breaks for Twitter and other inducements for tech firms that have fueled soaring rents and evictions citywide—entered the spotlight and convinced Miller to give the family an extra 10 days to secure a new home of some kind.  But, “they haven’t secured other housing yet” that fits their tight budget, said Calimbas.

The delay was trumpeted in mainstream media as the result of the mayoral intervention, but came only after headlines generated by the mass protests and outcry. Still, the attention and temporary victory could be a watershed moment for a resurgent housing and tenants’ rights movement.

Gen Fujioka, policy director for CCDC, asked the crowd to “recognize the courage of the Lee family. This has been a real struggle for them to come to this point.” He noted “how hard it is for a working-class family, an immigrant family, that followed the rules their whole lives,” to suddenly be foisted in the public spotlight.

Movement Surging

The Lee family’s fight to save their home appears to have become a flashpoint for a resurgent tenants’ and housing rights movement that has helped put evictions and displacement on the front pages—and, potentially, on the front burner of city policymakers who are under increasing pressure to stem a tidal wave of evictions.

An emerging citywide movement—including the Housing Rights Committee, Tenants Union, Eviction Free San Francisco (for which I’m a member and volunteer organizer, for disclosure), Jobs With Justice, Occupy Bernal, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and Chinatown Community Development Center—is fighting displacement both in the streets and in City Hall.

Labor also came out strong for the Lee family. “Many of our members don’t live here anymore, many are being kicked out” via evictions, foreclosures, and soaring housing costs, said Conny Ford, Secretary Treasurer for Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 3. A growing number of city workers, teachers, and other union workers “can’t live here anymore,” Ford said.

Mike Casey, President of UNITE HERE Local 2 echoed this mounting affordability crisis that’s increasingly uniting labor and housing rights movements. “We are seeing greater gaps between the very rich and working people. This city is becoming polarized because our voices are not being heard.”

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