That all changed recently when the prospective new owners of the property greeted Gaby by initially asking, “What are your plans?” This surprised Gaby, being that these strangers did not even own the building yet, as it is still in escrow.
“Existing tenants do not need to speak with a possible new owner. The only reasons are to mention that they want to stay, that they know their right as tenants and to tell about repairs needed at the property. It is illegal for a possible new owner to harass existing tenants or try to buy them out, particularly when tenants do not speak English. We want all tenants to fight to stay in the neighborhood,” explains Dairo Romero, community planning manager at MEDA.
Trying to get her downstairs neighbors to understand their rights has been a challenge for Gaby. Being monolingual Spanish speakers, these downstairs residents feel particularly vulnerable. One unit has tenants for nine years; the other unit for 17 years.
Imagine Gaby’s shock when she saw one of these families living in their car last Saturday.
Intimidation of Tenants
With the escalating price of homes and rentals in the Mission, many new owners are using intimidation to get rent-controlled units back in their hands.
That was certainly how Gaby felt when she heard Ritu Vohra’s comment about future plans. Gaby’s response? “I plan on staying in my home.”
Oddly, the current owner’s manager has been attempting to set up meetings with the tenants, acting as a liaison to the new prospective buyers. Gaby and her roommates have refused such meetings—their legal right—as they fear collusion.
“It’s nothing but greed. This is not a family looking to move into a building and start a life. These are speculators,” advises Gaby of her anger at this situation. “Sadly, the downstairs neighbors were more easily intimidated and left, moving into their vehicle. Community spirit took over, as other people who live nearby helped me convince those tenants to return to their longtime home. Everyone teamed up and moved them back in.”
New San Francisco law around buyout offers
Gaby knows these neighbors have been spoken to about a buyout.
Starting in March 2015, landlords now need to report to the San Francisco Rent Board when they offer a buyout to tenants, per Ordinance No. 225-14. It does not appear that this has been done, for once the buyout is reported, the city automatically sends all tenants a letter explaining their rights and offering resources to help them stay in the building. Gaby says that her neighbors have not received such a letter. She believes there may be a verbal buyout offer agreement, a way for the new possible owners to circumvent this law.
Tenants do not always do the math to see if a buyout agreement will put them in a better financial position, especially if they have been in a rent-controlled unit and must now go out on the open market. In the Mission, this translates to over $4,000 in rent, so the buyout money can be gone before you know it. That’s why the new law allows a tenant to rescind the buyout offer within 45 days of the agreement being signed.
The property’s history
A look on LinkedIn shows Ritu Vohra, one of the possible new owners, as CEO/Founder of Candu Capital Group, where she “spearheads strategic growth of the company” via “real estate acquisitions.” But at what price to the community?
Gaby notes, “I’ve heard Ritu Vohra yell at the downstairs neighbor’s mother. This is unfair, and unacceptable. This has been their home for years.”
The property at 884-886 Alabama Street near 21st Street showcases a sales history typical for the rapidly changing Mission neighborhood. Purchased in February 2001 for $540,000, the building was quickly resold in December of the same year for $765,000. Today’s asking price: a staggering $1,349,000.
Buying a building listed for over a million bucks means there is a need for some mighty high rents. This compels some landlords to go to great lengths to get rid of existing, rent-controlled tenants—tenants who could not find another rental in the Mission for anywhere near the same price they have been paying.
The building is also going to need work, meaning more money being spent on this investment. Gaby knows of the electrical issues. That there are leaks into the downstairs units from the flat above. That the fire escape is unsafe.
“The house didn’t even have smoke detectors. That is, until it went up for sale,” says Gaby of the living conditions.
Gaby came to San Francisco’s Mission District six years ago, hailing from Mexico. She moved to the Mission, the neighborhood she deemed “closest to home.”
Gaby knew she wanted to work to help lower-income Latinos, especially immigrants seeking a better life for their family in this country. That’s why she has worked for years at community-based organizations in the Mission.
This translates to Gaby now helping her downstairs neighbor with their rent (GoFundMe donation page, if you can help). The current landlord asked that neighbor to evict her tenants; these were tenants he had before approved as sublessees, a situation for the past seven years. This seems to have changed now that the building is for sale. Just another strong-arm tactic they are using to clear out the building.
If she had to leave the Alabama Street home she rents, there is a slim possibility of Gaby staying in the neighborhood. She has looked on Craigslist, with the going rate for a room anywhere in the city now in the $1,200-1,300 range—unaffordable on her nonprofit worker’s salary. Leaving San Francisco, the city she loves and serves, is Gaby’s sole option.
“Since the people who made the offer do not appear to be a family looking for a home, but speculators looking for another property to add to their portfolio, there is hope for Gaby and her roommates, and the downstairs neighbors. The only way Gaby can be evicted is if the new owners, or a relative of theirs, move into her unit and stay for a minimum of three years. That is San Francisco law,” remarks Karoleen Feng, director of community real estate at MEDA, where her team is working to help residents save their homes.
Even if she can stay in her home, Gaby fears continuing intimidation from new owners. While the stress is weighing on her, Gaby remains hopeful. She has seen the good in her community. She trusts in that community to stand together to fight injustice.
“This has been wrongly handled from the start,” concludes Gaby.