Displaced Renters Tell Their Stories
By Ted Andersen
Dozens of residents, many artists of rent-controlled units at 1049-1067 Market St. have been embroiled in an eviction fight since 2013 that has come to involve both the mayor and Mid-Market area Supervisor Jane Kim, who is pushing to keep the building zoned for residency as opposed to converting it to office space.
But win or lose, the saga of the people will soon be online for all to hear.
Instead of giving up or fading into obscurity, the stories of those who have been or who are facing displacement by gentrification will become public mid-March thanks to a new project by the volunteer advocacy group, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. By collecting the audio histories of roughly 40 people evicted from all parts of San Francisco and plotting them on a map, the group has created a living archive that documents the granular level of neighborhood-by-neighborhood evictions.
The Narratives of Displacement Oral History (NDOH) project consists of roughly 40 audio recordings of first-person eviction experiences in San Francisco. Some of the up-to-one-hour-long stories come from the Mid-Market neighborhood. The idea behind documenting the voices is to create discussion around the evictions in the city to shed light on the wider political economy, according to Erin McElroy, founder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
“We’re always working against the clock. We are in the midst of what people call hyper-gentrification, whereby evictions are happening too quickly to combat in their entirety,” she said. “Small businesses are going under left and right as rents go up and as new gentrifiers don’t frequent local shops, so we’re losing people that way too. Once people lose their homes or sources of employment in the city, they often lose the city as a home altogether since rents are too high.”
A dozen volunteers have worked for a year to put together NDOH, enlisting the help of university students. McElroy, a current doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz and trained cultural anthropologist who has documented forced evictions of Roma communities in both Romania and Northern Ireland, said 16 students in a University of San Francisco urban politics class paired up to interview tenants, edit and transcribe the interviews and take photographs.
She said the NDOH project will be online by mid-March for public viewing at www.antievictionmappingproject.net, which features a host of other data-driven graphics on its site ranging from a “Dirty Dozen” list of the biggest evictors in the city to the loss of the Bay Area’s black population from 1970-2013.
Producing the NDOH took an untold number of emotionally involved hours, according to volunteer Karyn Smoot, who joined the project last year. She said more people are becoming familiar with the issue of no-fault evictions, but in order to understand extent to which people are affected by gentrification, it’s important to hear personal accounts directly.
“Something that people in the project have asked me to think about is the disappearance of stories once someone is evicted and displaced to another city, county, state,” Smoot said. “I think the idea for the oral history project came from wanting to bring humanity to the little dots on the eviction map and to share the experience of talking to actual residents to remember and learn from the stories that are actively being lost through this process.”
San Francisco is losing 650 units of rent-controlled units every year on average, according to Jennifer Fieber, one of the organization’s principal contributors who worked on a report commissioned by Tenants Together regarding Ellis Act reform. This state law allows owners to trade a payout of more than $5,000 to relocate a tenant in order to go out of the rental business. Ellis Act evictions require a one-year notice for senior or disabled tenants (120 days for all others) and are often used by landlords to convert rental space to condos, TICs or luxury homes. She said it surprised her how 51 percent of new owners used the Ellis Act within the first year and 78 percent within the first five years.
“It had always been a theory that the Ellis Act was being used for speculative flipping rather than its stated purpose of getting out of the landlord business,” she said. “But when we calculated the period from purchase to Ellis, it became really apparent that the Ellis Act is overwhelmingly a tool of speculation and not an escape hatch.”
Fieber also said she was shocked to find that 71 percent of tenants removed by the Ellis Act in 2012 were seniors or people with disabilities.
“That is really tragic, and heartlessly cruel of the new owners,” she said. “What kind of society chooses to protect ill-gotten profits over our elders? It’s not like the city has set up other options for our elders who contributed so much to the city.”
State senator Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco, has recently proposed a bill to the California Legislature to make Ellis Act evictions illegal in buildings that have been owned for fewer than five years. The idea is to cut down speculative buying and flipping at the expense of ousting renters. Leno introduced a similar bill last year that passed the Senate only to get killed in an Assembly committee by one vote.