Eviction Stress Reaches Far and Wide in Renter-Heavy S.F.

Fear of forced displacement has traumatized a city full of renters, and for some people, the effects are long-lasting.

“I lost sleep every night and became miserable, anxious, and depressed for weeks before, during, and after the eviction,” says Sarah, who was born and raised in San Francisco. “I couldn’t afford an attorney but tried everything I could to fight it. It was a case of a slumlord being negligent and deciding he wanted to triple the rent and boot me out. I had a three-inch binder of photos, video, and reports from the city inspector, but because I had no attorney, I had no chance.”

It doesn’t require a late payment or two to qualify for an eviction in San Francisco. Renters can be kicked out if an owner decides to sell the building or wants to move in. Leases can be considered broken on account of small infractions, such as adopting a cat or repeatedly leaving a stroller in the lobby. A lost check in the mail, a house party that resulted in a noise complaint, an accidental flood, a home repair gone wrong — the list of reasons someone can lose their home in this city is nearly endless.

And defending oneself is no small feat; eviction attorneys can cost up to $400 an hour, far outside the budget of anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck. Nationwide, 90 percent of landlords hire an attorney to represent them in an eviction, while only 10 percent of tenants do. So rare is it that lawyer-search engine LegalMatch voices encouragement for landlords looking for an attorney.

“If an eviction is uncontested, the process should be quick and relatively inexpensive,” the website states.

San Francisco has seen nearly 40,000 evictions in the past 10 years. The “quick” factor is, for tenants, one of the most damning aspects. Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, worked as a lawyer with the Eviction Defense Collaborative for several years, which is where most tenants who don’t give up immediately turn to for legal assistance.

“The EDC exists to catch people before they default, because there are only five days including the weekend to respond to an eviction case once you’ve been served with the summons,” Varma says. “If they were higher than poverty-level income, we would refer them to private lawyers, which they usually couldn’t afford. If they were poverty-level we would refer them to other services, who would or would not take the case based on capacity.”

Proposition F, which will appear on June’s ballot, would change that. If passed, these legal-defense organizations could receive millions in city funding to offer a right to counsel for any resident served an eviction notice. It would be a gamechanger for the current power balance between renters and landlords, and it would level a seriously uneven playing field.

In the meantime, it’s difficult to encapsulate the collective trauma eviction is having on renters in S.F., because there is no data to back it up. Therapists and mental-health workers have not yet rallied to make a comprehensive, data-driven report, and while tenants’ rights groups do triage day in and day out to keep renters in their homes, there’s little hard evidence of the psychological stress thousands feel in San Francisco every time, say, they check their mailbox or receive a text from their landlord.

What we do have are peoples’ stories, and the sheer number of bodies who show up to the Tenants Union, the Rent Board, or various workshops to learn how to protect their rights.

Dean Preston, executive director of renters organization Tenants Together and one of the major proponents of Prop F, ran a series of Tenant Bootcamps in various neighborhoods across the city from 2015 to 2017. Preston says that out of the more than 400 people who attended, 80 percent said they lived in fear of an eviction.

“It’s just fear of displacement. Even those who aren’t getting served an eviction notice,” he tells SF Weekly. “That collective stress that people are under … that the next month it might drop, all while you’re trying to build your life in San Francisco.”

Mir has experienced this first-hand after she was evicted from her rent-controlled home of several years last September.

“The stress of a looming eviction was unbearable at times,” she says. “I gained weight. At work, I was anxious and tired from lack of sleep. I know I was distant towards my son. Often times, he would say things to me and I found it difficult to hold a conversation with him because my mind was always somewhere else — always wondering if that paper was on our door yet, and if it was, where we would go.”

When the eviction notice finally did arrive, Mir reached out to the EDC, but she was unable to secure a week stay on the order, which meant she had one day to vacate. She and her 10-year-old son moved into a hotel for a couple weeks in North Beach while she tried to figure out what to do next. After a few weeks of hunting, she managed to find a place several miles away from her old spot. But the stress of eviction lingers.

“One night, my new landlord called me late, around 9 p.m., and without even really thinking about it I just knew he was calling to tell me we had to leave,” she says. “When I answered the phone, it was just him asking for me to let him in because he forgot his keys.

“I feel silly about it, but I’m literally scared of mail,” she adds. “My landlord sticks our mail in the crack of our door and every time I see it I feel that feeling you get when you’re on a rollercoaster. Just pure fear.”

Our rent-controlled housing stock is a precious commodity, in part because it’s a constantly shrinking supply. Thanks to Costa-Hawkins, only multi-unit buildings constructed prior to 1979 can be rent-controlled, and as soon as tenants move out, the rent can be jacked up two or three-fold. In 2017, median rental prices for a two-bedroom apartment in the city decreased slightly, but still came in at a whopping $4,500 per month. With prices that high, it’s no wonder that 70 percent of the people living on city streets say they were housed in San Francisco before becoming homeless.

And in a city that by the last census was more than 64 percent renters, the vulnerability of eviction is mind-boggling. Mir isn’t the only one whose mental health suffers because of it.

Andy experienced this first hand when he was living in Washington, D.C.

“I, a non-lawyer, had to represent myself, which went about as well as you could expect,” he says.

He lost his apartment, but thanks to a diverse rental market in D.C., was able to find another home in a similar price range. That said, the trauma of eviction — and the effort it took to solely represent himself — has taken a massive toll, even though he’s moved across the country to San Francisco.

“I still have a large evidence binder that I carry around with me because I’m basically afraid they’ll try and sue me again. It’s been seven years,” he says.

Andy continued to rent until 2016, when he moved into what he describes as his “Hunters Point toxic shipyard condo,” which, while not perfect, at least steers him clear of eviction stress.

This anxiety is something that Preston says he hopes will be alleviated with the potential passage of Prop F.

“That’s really where the right to counsel really factors in just giving the knowledge to renters that you’re not going to be out there alone,” he says. 

In the meantime, Mir’s stress is high.

“I still have anxiety when I’m not in my apartment that feels like worry without something to worry about. I catch myself and take a deep breath and try to remind myself I won’t be coming home to a three-day notice, but it’s a subconscious thing,” she says. “Maybe it will take a while before my brain gets used to being stable again.”

In the meantime, the concept of “home” in itself can feel scary.

“Recently, I had my birthday party at a hotel,” Mir says. “When it was time to go to sleep, I just sat on the hotel bed for a moment and was surprised by how safe I felt. It’s weird, I felt safer in that hotel room than I do in my home.”

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