Recent Eviction Battles Reveal Need for Change at Planning Department

by Casey Mills on March 14, 2006

There appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel for three long-term tenants at Lyon and Golden Gate. In 2002, Prana 8 Investments purchased their building, a massive Victorian with 13 units of rental housing. In an attempt to free up units to be rented out at market rate, Prana 8 filled out an over-the-counter permit application at the Planning Department that claimed certain units were illegal and needed to be brought up to code. Because the application for the permit does not require landlords to reveal whether tenants occupy units claimed to be illegal, Planning did not review the application, thus nearly allowing Prana 8 to evict tenants so changes to the ‘illegal’ units could be made. The problem – the units weren’t illegal, and the permit simply represented a back-door attempt to circumvent Planning Commission restrictions on the elimination of rental housing. The permit would have also allowed Prana 8 to seal up the back doors and remove the porches and decks of many of their tenants, clearing the way for destruction of an adjoining building where condos could then be built. Sadly, the building at Golden Gate and Lyon is not the only case revealing this glaring loophole in the city’s planning process.

1980-1998 Golden Gate and 800-808 Lyon, a building constructed towards the close of the 19th century, looks like San Francisco’s version of the Winchester Mystery House. A sprawling Victorian with countless add-ons, the site likely served as housing for the city’s gravediggers during the first half of the 20th century.

When owner Rose Frauenhoff sold the building, which had been in her family for decades, the building had 13 units. Long-term tenants occupied several of these units, and enjoyed coverage by rent control. Prana 8 quickly went to work to force these tenants out of their homes. Three sets of tenants have already been displaced as a result, and another tenant must move out by May 1, 2006.

A campaign of general harassment began soon after the purchase, beginning with replacing all of the units’ glass doors with thick wooden doors so a master key could be created for the entire building. Unannounced entries by the landlord and appraisers began soon after.

Prana 8 also started issuing unnecessary three-day eviction notices to tenants. These included notices claiming that if they didn’t move all their possessions out of their storage units immediately, they would be evicted, despite storage space being part of their tenancy. Notices were also issued telling tenants to pay their rent within three days or move out on a date when rent was not due.

In addition, the new landlords intend to eliminate all the units’ back doors and porches, which many tenants used for gardens and gathering places, as well as back stairs, which provide the only fire escape. Prana 8 hoped to use the additional space provided by the destruction of the porches to build condos behind the Golden Gate and Lyon property, which they would then sell at a massive profit.

Prana 8’s most direct form of harassment came when they attempted to evict three sets of tenants from the building. To do this, they claimed that the two ground-floor units were illegal, and needed to be merged into one unit, which they ultimately planned to use for storage space. They also claimed that the one top-floor unit was actually two units, and that they were adding new kitchens to these units. They then filed for a permit to achieve these goals, all of which would require the tenants occupying these units be evicted.

Unfortunately, the permit for these actions didn’t require that the landlords reveal if tenants occupy the units they wish to alter. Thus, the Planning Department initially approved these requests without review, seemingly sealing the fate of these tenants.

Lenny Tremmel, a tenant at the building since 1992, would face grave consequences if evicted. He’s currently unemployed and living off of his savings. Should he be forced out of his home, he could very well be forced out of the city. For Tremmel, the aspect of the case that angers him the most is the dishonesty of Prana 8.

“It’s pretty shabby,” said Tremmel. “If you’re going to do this type of thing, be up front about it. The way they’ve gone about doing all this stuff, it’s hard to see it as anything but intentional deceit.”

A similar occurrence happened last year, when the owner of 1366 San Bruno Avenue claimed a ‘shed’ on the property was illegal, and that he needed to make alterations to the unit in order to bring it up to code. The Planning Department granted the request. Unfortunately, what the landlords called a shed on their permit application was actually a cottage with a long-term tenant residing in it. The tenant narrowly avoided eviction.

In both cases, intervention by legal representatives likely staved off unnecessary evictions. But a variety of similar cases occur regularly across the city in which evictions happen because tenants are unaware of their rights. Not only are low-income residents being forced out the city as a result, but the city’s precious rental housing stock is being depleted as well.

A simple change to the permit process would solve this problem. By adding a requirement that building owners reveal if tenants occupy ‘illegal’ units they wish to alter, the Planning Department could review these units to ensure they are in fact illegal, and that the changes necessitate the eviction of a tenant.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the site at Grove and Lyon, has expressed interest in addressing this problem. Hopefully, he can secure approval from the Board of Supervisors for legislation closing this dangerous loophole.

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