Bernal Heights: A Gold-Rush Eviction Tale

It was a day last May, more than six years into my residence in the city, when I realized I was soon going to be out of a place to live. Our landlord—a shady, nonsocial guy I heard barking at his wife sometimes in the apartment where they lived above me—had sold our house. It wasn’t even on the market. San Francisco has some of the best tenants-rights laws in the country, but there were still ways we could be ejected. The buyers could move a family member into our apartment. They could take all the units—in our building, there were a total of three—off the rental market through the Ellis Act, which people had lately used to turn formerly rent-controlled units into exorbitantly priced for-sale condos. Ellis evictions were up 170 percent over the previous three years, evictions overall up 38 percent.

But there were other, uncounted cases. In ours, our new landlord, a hip-looking gal around my age who worked at Google, asked us if we would just leave. She said she just didn’t really feel like having tenants. Then she filed a lawsuit against us, alleging we were “causing substantial interference with the comfort, safety, and enjoyment” of others in the building. She said if we signed some papers and vacated, the lawsuit would go away. She called it a “dummy lawsuit”; it sounded so friendly.

“You said you didn’t want to fight, but here we are fighting!” she yelled at me when I called her to talk about this, her voice cracking.

“Put yourself in our position,” I said, even as I was considering hers: After all, if I had bought a million-dollar house, I might expect to be able to do whatever I pleased with it.

“Being a landlord in San Francisco sucks!” She actually started crying a bit. “I spent my life savings to buy a house, and this is what I get?” Then she said we had to sign the papers or face the consequences within a couple of days, because she was leaving for Burning Man.

“It’s so sad when a city can’t support its bohemia anymore,” an older, richer person said to me about our dilemma. But I was not bohemia. I’m professional class, with a master’s degree and white skin and no children and a frankly impressive savings account.

“If this is how hard I’m struggling,” I demanded of everyone, “what are other people doing?” I could have afforded the dank, illegal basement hovel a former Peace Corps volunteer was renting out for $2,000 a month. Or the $2,150 studio a progressive journalist was offering in our neighborhood, where rent had gone up 65 percent from 2011 to 2012. I could have bribed the landlords at the open houses in Oakland we went to, offering to pay above what the other 100 people who showed up were offering so as to get so much as a callback for an apartment we didn’t even want. We could have taken our case to court, or countersued. But forget being expensive; San Francisco, of all places, was turning callous. And me with it.

“We’ve been looking at houses for around $500,000,” one of my friends told me one day. When I asked him how he could afford that, he said his dad had died and left him some money.

“How nice for you,” I said.

Within days, we signed the papers. My husband took them upstairs to our landlord’s apartment, where she was fastening LED lights onto her Burning Man jacket.

Bernal Heights: A Gold-Rush Eviction Tale