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Defense Collaborative executive director Miguel Wooding says his nonprofit, which has advised Getzow in at least four eviction cases, helps about 2,000 tenants each year. The collaborative primarily provides information and legal strategies to tenants who are representing themselves against landlords in court. The vast majority of cases, he says, involve tenants who have fallen on hard times or are being wrongfully evicted by landlords for reasons such as living in rent-controlled apartments the landlords would like to rent at market value.
Wooding says the serial evictee problem in San Francisco is smaller than landlord attorneys claim. "It's very difficult to track something like that, but I would say of the 2,000 people we help every year, less than 1 percent are trying to take advantage of the system," he says. "In any case, it's not our role to judge the people who come to us for help. Tenants have a right to present their case in court."
And San Francisco has its share of heartless landlords. One extreme example is the terror tactics allegedly employed by property owners Kip and Nicole Macy, who were charged with numerous felonies earlier this year for, among other things, cutting the support beams from one tenant's floor, burglarizing another's apartment, and cutting off utilities to another.
Carolyn Gold directs the San Francisco Volunteer Legal Services Program, which manages a group of 10 volunteer attorneys who help tenants in the 30 or so eviction cases that come through Superior Court each week. She says she sees very few serial evictees like Getzow. "In fact, what we see more of is serial evictors, landlords who continually come up with ruses for one eviction after another," she says. "There are lots of tenants who have gotten themselves into a tight spot for one reason or another — they're elderly, they have medical conditions, lost jobs — things that are beyond their control. I see it every day, and it's very, very sad."
While this may be the case, small landlords are also susceptible to savvy tenants like Getzow who know how to work the system. "There can be a series of 'gotcha' moments, such as the landlord accepting money from a tenant, that can set the whole process back," Bornstein says. "There's a morass of litigation that can cause delays, and remember the landlord is paying for an attorney the entire time in addition to losing rent."
In May, Getzow and O'Reilly, along with other litigants locked in eviction battles, were jammed into a small courtroom on the second floor of the Civic Center Courthouse on McAllister.
Getzow, who was being represented by a volunteer attorney from the Eviction Defense Collaborative, had requested a trial, claiming he shouldn't have to pay rent because O'Reilly's building was substandard. Getzow's written habitability complaint listed 20 alleged defects including dangerous stairways, poor security, mold, and drafty windows. But his complaint was highly suspect, given that it was word-for-word identical to complaints he had filed in four previous evictions.
The presiding judge authorized Getzow and O'Reilly's dispute to enter the settlement phase, where tenant and landlord both have the incentive to reach a settlement and avoid trial. In fact, only about 5 percent of evictions end up being tried, according to Borstein. For landlords, legal fees can be between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on the complexity of the case. For serial evictees, the settlement conference is where they can get all sorts of perks if they play their cards right. Some negotiate two additional months or longer of free rent before they move out, plus moving costs and a good reference to use for future landlords.
The terms may seem outrageous, but landlords often agree to them to avoid the cost of going to trial. Plus San Francisco is a political town, and landlord attorneys say judges and juries are wildcards in eviction cases. A landlord may win an eviction action, but the judge will turn around and give the tenant occupancy provided he or she pays the rent, by an action known as a relief from forfeiture motion.
While some renters play hardball during the settlement conference and try to squeeze the landlords for as much as they can get, Getzow was apologetic in at least one case. James Babcock, who spent five months evicting him in 2006, says Getzow poured on the charm, and continued to make promises. Babcock, who rented Getzow an apartment in his building at 1137 Bush, says, "Even after I received a judgment against him for $11,000, which I know I'll never see, he came up to me in court and vowed to pay me back as though it were all some kind of misunderstanding."
Getzow, who declined to be interviewed for this story, did not sit in on the May settlement conference, as he normally would have. Instead, he waited outside in the hall while his court-appointed attorney negotiated on his behalf.
Getzow may have avoided direct negotiations with O'Reilly because of an argument the two had last winter that erupted in violence. According to police, Getzow came into the Holy Grail on Feb. 10 at about 1:30 a.m. complaining about noise and attempting to goad O'Reilly into a fight. O'Reilly refused and tried to get Getzow to leave. Bartender Patricia Herlihy was so alarmed at Getzow's behavior that she began taking photographs of him with a digital camera. Getzow approached her and shoved or pushed the camera into her face, SFPD Sergeant Neville Gittens says.