How renters work the system to live for free in one of America's most expensive cities

In September, rental agent Lynne Hubbard sat in a cafe across from Dr. John Getzow, whom she was considering as a potential tenant for a room above O'Reilly's Holy Grail restaurant and bar on Polk Street. He was clean-cut and well dressed. He was a doctor, after all, and he seemed eager to find a place to live. But there was something faintly odd about him.

Getzow, 55, had arranged to meet Hubbard at the Crepe House on Polk. Once he sat down at the table, he told her about his technical consulting firm that helped hospitals with billing software. He went on to say he was active in city politics; he had worked on Mayor Gavin Newsom's campaign, and was currently involved in fund-raising for Senator Barack Obama's bid for the presidency.

At one point Getzow moved aside the coffee mugs on the small table and placed a leather-bound portfolio in front of Hubbard. He flipped through pages of references from former landlords, invoices addressed to hospitals for huge sums — even a letter of recommendation from Newsom's former campaign manager.

Getzow tries to conceal himself as he moves out after his most recent eviction.
Jared Greunwald
Getzow tries to conceal himself as he moves out after his most recent eviction.
Getzow leaving the courthouse 
after a hearing on his assault charges.
Roscoe Lydell
Getzow leaving the courthouse after a hearing on his assault charges.

"I thought the portfolio presentation was a bit much for a room over O'Reilly's Holy Grail," Hubbard says. "He was trying too hard to impress me, but I wasn't sure why. I thought maybe it was because I'm female."

Considering Getzow's glowing credentials, Hubbard never would have guessed that when she accepted his application for the apartment in Myles O'Reilly's building, his tenancy would eventually cost the landlord thousands of dollars and climax in Getzow's arrest for assault.

As it turned out, Getzow was not a licensed doctor in California, although he did work sporadically as a medical software consultant. He also was not as integral to the political campaigns he had volunteered for. In fact, he was one of the most successful "serial evictees" in San Francisco, a select group of tenants who take advantage of the city's lenient courts and tenant-support nonprofits to tie up landlords in court for months while they live practically rent-free in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Depending on the vigilance of the landlord, a seasoned serial evictee like Getzow can get away with a minimum of 45 days and sometimes up to a year of free rent. The actual number of serial evictees operating in San Francisco is difficult to track, but some attorneys who specialize in representing landlords estimate there are between 20 and 100.

Landlord attorney Clifford Fried of Wiegel and Fried says these types of tenants know they're unlikely to be punished for withholding rent. "You can go into a store and steal a loaf of bread and do a year in jail," he says, "but you can steal months of rent from a landlord and never do any time in jail. It's a great crime to commit because there are no penalties."

Getzow has a string of evictions going back to 1992 in San Diego. He has also been evicted in Los Angeles and Walnut Creek. But it is in San Francisco where he has been most prolific: According to court records, he has been evicted from seven residences in the city since 2002. These don't include the landlords who didn't take legal action against him, such the owners of the Swiss House on O'Farrell, where Getzow lived rent-free for months before moving on, according to former owner Hans Selhorn.

Steven Williams of Wiegel and Fried represented a landlord who evicted Getzow in 2006. When the attorney recently saw Getzow during a break in yet another eviction proceeding, he recognized the man, but wasn't sure from where. "At first I thought he was an attorney I had worked with," Williams says. "It took me a while to remember who he was, but that's how he comes across, a smooth-talking gentleman in a nice blue blazer and khakis ... like a Harvard man."

But it takes more than a suit and a haircut to be a successful serial evictee. You have to be well versed in city and state rent laws in order to live rent-free, and Getzow apparently knows all the tricks, which he used on his new landlord O'Reilly last fall.

O'Reilly has a reputation for being a generous boss who goes out of his way to help employees and regular customers. In September, he was still new to being a landlord when Hubbard approved Getzow for a room, and saw no reason to be concerned. O'Reilly liked the idea of helping out a politically active doctor who might be a little down on his luck. He made his new tenant feel welcome, even giving him some free meals in the restaurant, according to Hubbard.

But some of O'Reilly's employees and other tenants wondered why a doctor would want to live above a restaurant and bar on Polk. It wasn't long before they all realized Getzow was going to be trouble, according to Brett Bennett, another tenant in the building. Getzow was quiet at first, but soon he was overly interested in making friends with the other tenants, says Bennett, who works as a registered nurse.

"He told me he was a doctor and that he could get me a job with a 'real company,'" Bennett says. "I'm a gay man, so I know a lot of people who work it real hard, and I work with recovering addicts who are always looking for an angle. I could tell that Getzow was a snake."

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