Disaster Corts the Mission

In recent years, San Francisco's Mission District has seen a number of developments adversely affecting its traditional working-class character. White-tablecloth restaurants and bars oriented toward the backward-baseball-cap crowd have proliferated, drawing upper-middle-class partiers to a neighborhood they once avoided.

But gentrification isn't just obnoxious yuppies bouncing from cocktail lounges to sushi bars around Valencia and 16th streets. It also involves the systematic removal of working-class people from their homes.

San Francisco's market-driven housing crisis has resulted in skyrocketing rents, a less than 1 percent rental-housing vacancy rate, and an epidemic of owner-move-in (OMI) evictions. One example was an OMI eviction of long-term tenants of 3257 20th St.

Retired probate attorney Robert Cort Sr., his wife Vera, daughter Deborah, and son Robert Jr. control 16 properties in San Francisco, many through a family trust. Together, the properties are assessed at more than $12.5 million. Seven are located in the Mission District, and the Corts are currently embroiled in three lawsuits related to their Mission holdings.

In the early 1960s, Margarita Ubeda and her husband moved into a single-family Victorian house on 20th Street near Treat Avenue in the Mission. Margarita's husband was a construction laborer. Her brother, Fernando Hernandez, lived in an attic apartment. Fernando made a living doing maintenance and janitorial work.

Ubeda's husband died in 1989. Shortly afterward, Hernandez moved downstairs with his sister. Both were in their 70s, and they paid $500 a month in rent, not unusual for long-term tenants.

Their landlord died in September 1996. In October 1996, Robert Cort Sr. and his wife purchased the building in a probate-court auction for $127,500. The Corts immediately moved to evict all the tenants of the two occupied units in the building -- Ubeda and Hernandez in the main house, and two adults and three children in an attached in-law unit.

Raquel Fox, an attorney working for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, represented Ubeda and Hernandez in the eviction proceedings -- unsuccessfully -- and is now suing the Corts on their behalf.

Shortly after the Corts bought the building, Ubeda and Hernandez received two eviction notices in rapid succession. "It looked like an attempt to intimidate these people. Fernando and Margarita were very frightened," Fox says.

In November, the Corts transferred ownership of the building to Robert Jr. In December, Ubeda and Hernandez were sent another eviction notice. According to the pending lawsuit, the Corts then began a full-court press to drive Ubeda and Hernandez out of the house.

The Corts "engaged in harassing conduct ... including but not limited to threatening [Ubeda and Hernandez], refusing to make necessary repairs, knocking the lock off the garage door, disposing of [Ubeda and Hernandez's] personal property and entering [the] home without permission or required notice," the lawsuit claims.

Cort Jr. is a physically imposing man in his early 30s, well over 6 feet tall and weighing around 220 pounds. According to Fox, the physically diminutive and elderly Ubeda and Hernandez felt intimidated and bullied by Cort Jr. Fox claims that Cort Jr. repeatedly showed up without notice, pounding and kicking on Ubeda and Hernandez's front door. On some occasions, Cort Sr. accompanied him, Fox says. The Corts yelled, "Get out or the police will come and throw you out!" and, "This is my property -- get out!" according to Fox.

In October, according to Fox, Cort Jr. kicked the lock off the garage door, making Ubeda and Hernandez's apartment completely open to break-ins, since there was an unlocked door from the garage to their apartment. In October, November, and December, Cort Jr. went into the garage and tore insulation out of the ceiling, beneath the floor of Ubeda and Hernandez's apartment, creating a draft in their apartment, Fox says.

In a telephone interview, Cort Jr. denied all of Fox's allegations. He acknowledged digging into the ceiling, but says he "took off tiles to inspect for termites."

The lawsuit says Cort Jr. also gave away possessions Hernandez had stored in the garage, including clothing, books, photo albums, and other items of great personal value and little monetary worth. Cort Jr. acknowledges giving away things from the garage but says they didn't belong to Hernandez.

In January 1997, Fox filed a complaint with city building inspectors on behalf of Ubeda and Hernandez over the broken garage-door lock -- and a leaky pipe in the basement -- and the Corts were ordered to fix both.

Before the eviction case went to court, Fox says Cort Sr. made an uninvited and unannounced visit to her law office. Fox says Cort "looked like a frugal shopper, dressed in Salvation Army clothes," and acted pompous and condescending as he tried to convince her to stop helping Ubeda and Hernandez. Fox says she found his behavior repulsive but didn't know at the time that he was a multimillionaire real-estate investor, and she felt pity for him based on his appearance.

In a telephone interview, Cort Sr. at first adamantly denied visiting Fox's office, then said, "I may have gone over there, but not for that purpose."

The eviction suit against Ubeda and Hernandez went to court on June 5, 1997.
Vera Cort testified that her 31-year-old son had lived at home since birth "except for two years he went away to school and lived at school, and a couple of times he lived a few months with, I think, two different girlfriends, for a period of a couple of months, and then he came back."

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