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Disaster Corts the Mission 

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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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."

The Corts testified that Junior would only be able to leave the parental nest if he could evict all the tenants at 3257 20th St. Although a successful commercial realtor -- and owner of the building in which the Atlas Cafe is located -- Cort Jr. apparently couldn't become a renter himself to facilitate the big jump to adult life.

In June, a jury ruled in favor of the Corts. The Sheriff's Department posted an eviction notice June 17. Ubeda and Hernandez moved out on July 2.

Fox also represented Lucia Abea, the tenant of the in-law unit at the back of the building. Abea is a single mother who lived with her daughter, a young son, and two grandchildren, one a toddler. She works as a maid, has little formal education, and has very limited English. Abea had moved into the apartment in 1985 and paid around $400 a month rent when the Corts grabbed the building. Five days after the Corts purchased the building, Abea was given a three-day notice to quit the premises.

Fox says Cort Jr. told Abea that she would have to move out because he intended to move into her apartment, but that if she was cooperative she could stay there rent-free for three months. After this verbal offer, Cort served Abea with another three-day notice to quit the premises, and an unlawful detainer, then verbally reassured Abea again that these were only formalities that she shouldn't take seriously, and that they would not affect her standing as a tenant.

For more than three months in the spring of 1997, according to city building inspection records, Cort Jr. failed to make repairs to a staggering number of water leaks and broken plumbing in Abea's apartment, despite the fact that there were small children in the house, including a child under 2 years old. Confused and intimidated by the Corts, Fox says, Abea and her family moved out of their home in August 1997.

In our March 8 telephone interview, Vera Cort made this incredible claim: "The ones in the back moved out voluntarily because they were friends with the other ones, and she just moved out. We didn't evict them."

San Francisco's owner-move-in eviction law specifies that the new owner must move into the evicted tenants' home within a year and live there for at least a year before re-renting or selling the property. Cort Jr. testified under oath during the eviction proceedings that he had to displace seven low-income, working-class tenants from two apartment units so he could move out of his mommy and daddy's place and start living on his own.

But Cort Jr. has never moved in. The house at 3257 20th St. has remained unoccupied and in a state of extreme disrepair for more than a year-and-a-half.

Cort Jr. insists that he still intends to move into the property and calls Fox "a nut case." Cort Jr. and his mother say his move has been delayed because they want to make some repairs on the house and had trouble getting the necessary permits. When the work is finished, Cort Jr. says, he still plans to live there. "I'm moving in," he says. "It's my house."

The neighborhood is "getting nicer," he says. "When wealthier people live down there, the cops seem to respond better."

By waiting more than a year to move into the house, Cort Jr. appears to be in flagrant violation of the city's OMI eviction law. But since the law serves the needs of banks, landlords, and the rich, no action has been taken against him.

Now in their late 70s, Hernandez and Ubeda have paid a high price to provide Robert Cort Jr. with his future Details-magazine-style bachelor pad. They are now living in a one-room studio with no privacy on Folsom Street. Fernando has heart problems, circulatory and respiratory illness, and high blood pressure. Margarita has diabetes. They are distraught over the loss of the home they lived in for more than 33 years. Of Hernandez, Fox observes, "He seems to be in a constant state of melancholy."

Fox is suing the Corts on Ubeda and Hernandez's behalf for violation of the rent ordinance, negligence, fraud, unfair business practices, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking $750,000 in damages, and a trial date has been set for July 19. In response to the suit, the Corts deny all of the allegations and claim that Ubeda and Hernandez are themselves "100 percent at fault and culpable" for all problems pertaining to their eviction.

I thought the realities of San Francisco's market-driven housing crisis had finally sunk in for SF Weekly columnist George Cothran when he attacked luxury condo developer Joe O'Donoghue and the Residential Builders Association ("Developing Friendship," Feb. 3).

I was mistaken.
Cothran has since reverted to his habit of sucking up to the enemies of San Francisco tenants with a puff piece on Deborah Cort and her efforts to hustle City College into occupying a Mission Street property she has eyes for ("Cort of Last Resort," March 31). Cothran waxed sentimental over cuddly little mom-and-pop speculators like Cort and her family. For Cothran, the business of America is business, and all that conforms to this dullard's paradigm is "common sense." But the difference between Joe O'Donoghue and the Cort family is only a matter of scale.

The Corts may be a miserable band of ragpickers compared to bloated Joe, but their impact is just as pernicious, if not as pervasive, as that of the Residential Builders Association.

Nestor Makhno is a pseudonym used by the spokesman for the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project, an underground anarchist group devoted to battling gentrification in the Mission District.

About The Author

Nestor Makhno

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