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Bennett says Getzow was continually talking about his political connections. He'd hosted fund-raisers for Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and for Obama. He also implied to Bennett that he was a health-care adviser to Newsom. Getzow did volunteer for Newsom's 2003 mayoral campaign, but he was not an official adviser. Newsom's campaign manager, Alex Tourk, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Getzow, and consultant Johnny Wang say he was a dedicated volunteer who was at campaign headquarters every day, but after the election he played little part, if any, in the administration.
Bennett says Getzow was soon trying to get the other tenants to join in a lawsuit against O'Reilly over noise from the bar downstairs. Then Getzow changed the locks on his door. "He was laughing about it, like he was doing it out of spite," Bennett says. "It was very strange ... he takes this joy out of it."
Getzow's stay above the Grail was right out of the serial evictee's playbook. He moved into room six in late September and failed to pay October's rent, court records indicate. O'Reilly soon realized Getzow had no intention of paying, and moved to serve him with a three-day notice to pay or move out. Serving such a notice begins a tricky legal process that is fraught with pitfalls. The slightest misstep can set the process back by weeks or even months, during which time the tenant lives rent-free and the landlord loses money.
For example, the notice doesn't count if the landlord slips it under the tenant's door or leaves it on the floor outside the apartment. Furthermore, if the landlord tapes it on the unit door instead of personally serving the tenant, state law requires the notice also has to be sent by certified mail. Even if the landlord serves the notice according to the letter of the law, the serial evictee usually challenges the service, which automatically adds two weeks or more to the process.
In Getzow's case, Hubbard says, after the tenant received the three-day notice, he stopped answering his door or his phone to avoid being served with the complaint and summons, the second document in the eviction process. This is more difficult to serve because it has to be given directly to the tenant. "Myles had to hire someone to sit in the hallway for up to 10 hours a day, waiting for Getzow to come out," Hubbard says. "I'm pretty sure the person had waited there for, like, five days, and they knew he was in the room because they could hear the radio and shower."
The summons was finally served on Dec. 19, according to court records. But that was only the beginning. It would take O'Reilly another five months of wrangling with the court system and thousands of dollars in lost rent and attorney fees.
The number of serial evictees operating in San Francisco is hard to add up because they are good at covering their tracks. They have a number of tricks, such as changing their names to dodge background checks, or using phony landlord and work references. Also benefiting them is a state law that requires eviction actions to be masked from the public for 60 days after their initial filing.
But most landlord attorneys can rattle off two or three names without thinking. One legendary serial evictee used a series of aliases. "I evicted him once in 45 days; it was a record," Fried says. "He was a character. One time he was being evicted under a different name, and when he walked into the courtroom and realized the judge knew him, he turned and ran out."
Another serial evictee, who claims he has a disability, has been successful in persuading judges to have all records refer to him as "John Doe." One evictee is so litigious that two seasoned attorneys refused to utter his name, though legend has it that he occupied an upscale home in Presidio Heights for years without ever paying the $5,000 monthly rent.
With so much at stake, it's a riddle how serial evictees are able to trick one landlord after another when credit reports, court records, and job histories are readily available. But landlord attorney Daniel Bornstein says it's not as difficult as it might seem.
There are many landlords in San Francisco who simply don't do thorough background checks, either because they are trusting or they are in a hurry to start collecting rent, Bornstein explains. "Believe it or not, a lot of landlords are struggling, and they can be in a hurry to fill an empty unit," he says. "And some guy with charisma comes along and the landlord is willing to take a chance."
But once a serial evictee occupies a unit, a host of state laws kicks in to guarantee a minimum 45-day free stay. In San Francisco, which has some of the most progressive rental policies in the state, there are numerous free services and programs for tenants. These include the San Francisco Tenants Union, Bay Area Legal Aid, the city-run San Francisco Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, and several nonprofits that are largely city-funded, such as the Bar Association of San Francisco and the Eviction Defense Collaborative, the latter of which receives about $800,000 annually from the city. The city's rental ordinance also requires the three-day notice to include a sentence telling tenants where they can get legal advice on eviction proceedings, Bornstein says. And San Francisco is one of the only cities in the country in which the courts require that evictees should be represented by an attorney.