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94-year-old SF woman fighting eviction after 8 decades in same apartment

Helen Byrne, 94, has called the same San Francisco apartment home for more than eight decades after moving in with her dad and sisters at the age of 12.

Her Mission District neighborhood looks a lot different these days, but Byrne’s apartment is practically a time capsule from a bygone era. 

She still sleeps in her childhood bedroom, where she now spends most of her time after suffering a fall last year. It’s where she wanted to live out the rest of her life, surrounded by her longtime friends and neighbors, she said.

But Byrne’s life was upended when the four-unit building was purchased back in 2020 by real estate investors operating through an LLC. 

Now, she and the building’s other decadeslong tenants are trying to stave off an eviction attempt they never saw coming, and they could potentially be forced out of their homes within weeks.

“It came as a surprise to me, actually a shock to me, that I would have to move from here,” Byrne said. “Where would I go? I’m so used to this place.”

Byrne outlived the rest of her family and lives alone, but her neighbor Cecilia Matias helps take care of her.

“Right now, she is strong because of this building,” Matias said. “This apartment alone makes her feel that she’s home.”

Matias has lived in the building for 40 years herself – the first apartment her family moved into after leaving the Philippines. She and Byrne have grown close over the years, almost like family, they say.

“She’s been very good to me,” Byrne said. “She’s like a daughter to me.”

Cecilia’s sister also lives in the building. So does Anthony Martin, who lives with his wife and son, an Iraq war veteran. Since the tenants have all lived in the rent-controlled building for decades, their rent is much lower than San Francisco’s sky-high market rates. 

It’s also the reason why their new landlords have been trying to get them out of their apartments ever since taking over the building more than three years ago.

NBC Bay Area reviewed emails obtained through the eviction case that Daniel Mytels, the LLC’s manager, sent their lender, showing plans to empty the building from the start, either through buyouts or evictions.

In one 2020 email, Mytels called the building “an almost impossibly good value,” adding that the property “is burdened with four long-term occupants paying a total of just $3,800 or so in total rent per month.” So, he outlined plans to get the tenants out and rent the units out at higher prices. Or, if necessary, sell the building vacant.

Over the phone, Mytels told NBC Bay Area that it’s a terrible situation but said the tenants’ current rent doesn’t cover the building’s operating expenses.

The landlords started by offering the tenants buyouts — basically cash for keys — in the range of $70,000 to $85,000 per unit, according to letters reviewed by NBC Bay Area. More if everyone in the building accepted the offer, but every tenant turned them down.

“I would like to stay here for the rest of my life,” Byrne said. “I have all my friends and neighbors that live here with me.”

Four months after rejecting the buyout offer, the tenants were hit with notices saying the building’s owners were invoking the Ellis Act, a law allowing landlords to evict their tenants if they take the property off the rental market for at least five years. The notices gave them four months to leave, plus a one-year extension allowed under the law because of the tenants’ age.

“His goal here was speculation, pure speculation,” said Steve Collier, managing attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a San Francisco nonprofit that fights displacement of low-income residents.

In an email, the landlord’s attorney, Raymond M. Yetka, said the owners are aware of the hardships posed by the eviction, adding, “The owner initially attempted to pay the tenants significant money to vacate. However, when all tenants refused, the landlord’s only remaining option was to terminate the tenancies under the Ellis Act.”

Collier said the tenants don’t want to give up fighting, in part because Byrne has nowhere else to go. 

“[The Ellis Act] is often used by speculators to empty buildings and then sell them at a greater value because the long-term rent control tenants aren’t in the building,” Collier said.

The owners’ attorney, however, defended the move. 

“The Ellis Act was created to resolve unintended consequences of local rent control laws, allowing landlords to quit the rental market when rental rates make it unfeasible to be a housing provider,” Yetka wrote in an email. 

Instead of moving out, however, the tenants turned to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic for help. Their window to leave under the Ellis Act has come and gone, and they’re now fighting an eviction lawsuit in court. 

“I don’t want [Byrne] to go anywhere else,” Matias said. “I told her, ‘You think you don’t have a family, but you have. It’s me. No matter what, I’ll take care of you.’ Even though we’re not blood related, I feel like we’re closer.”

Even their neighborhood priest, who’s known Byrne and other residents in the building for more than a decade, is standing by their side.

“People aren’t just numbers to be discarded,” said Fr. John Jimenez, a priest for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “It’s wrong that this is happening. You shouldn’t have to lose the home that you’ve lived in all your life and you’ve paid your rent and done all the responsible things.”

When asked about future plans for the building, Yetka said in part, “…The most likely outcomes are a sale of the vacant property as a whole, or conversion of the units to Tenants in Common (TIC) interests for sale to owner-occupants.”

Collier said the fate of Byrne and her neighbors could be decided in court soon, possibly within the next few days. 

“She’s 94”, Matias said. “She’s already lived her life. But let her be happy…at peace.”


Source: NBC Bay Area

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