Vallie Brown, the District 5 supervisor in the midst of a heated election, has said she knows what it’s like to get evicted. It was often the reason why she and her artist friends hopped from one SoMa warehouse to the other for nearly a decade. Public records show that Brown has experience on both sides of the equation.
Brown, along with three other friends, entered a Tenancy in Common (TIC) with the purchase of 148-152 Fillmore Street, between Waller and Germania streets, for $275,000 in 1994. TICs allow for joint ownership of a property, with each party owning a certain percentage depending on how much stake they put into it, and a more accessible way to owning a home in San Francisco. Brown credits her ability to afford to live in San Francisco to the collective of her friends and the further addition of low-paying tenants.
“When people talk about social housing, we kind of lived that,” Brown tells SF Weekly. “You share everything. Really, it was the only way we were able to stay here.”
The sale of the four-unit building from its previous owners to Brown and her friends was finalized in April 1994. That same month, an eviction notice would be served to the existing tenants. The evictions were contested by three tenants, according to Rent Board documents reviewed by SF Weekly. A few more people lived in the same building at the time of the sale but did not contest the eviction.
Brown says they needed more income from the tenants to pay for building renovations to address problems like mold, and that she tried to work with the tenants so that they could stay. When they couldn’t settle on a rent amount, she and her co-owners moved to evict them.
Two former tenants reached by SF Weekly said they didn’t remember efforts to help them. By the fall of that year, all tenants from before the sale vacated the building.
But Brown thinks the ultimate problem was the lack of assistance from the city or nonprofits to help make the house livable for a cooperative, while keeping rent affordable for previous tenants. The house simply had too many repairs and they sought capital — or at least, consistent rent payments — to make those improvements, she says.
“It should have been condemned,” Brown says. “Tenants felt, for paying rent, the place was too much of a wreck. We wanted to keep people there and we didn’t have help. That’s been my biggest disappointment with the city — that unless you fit in a box, we don’t help.”
Brown says after months of living together they simply couldn’t agree on rent to keep the existing tenants in the building. The San Francisco Community Land Trust facilitates affordable, joint ownership but wasn’t established until 2001.
Planning Department records confirm that extensive renovations were made including a new roof, staircases and upgraded plumbing and electrical systems. Bathrooms were remodeled and walls and beams were added in the garage over 20 years of Brown’s ownership. Most of the building permits obtained for the property were for 2001 and 2010, long after the tenants were evicted.
Brown eventually ended up with full ownership of the building as her co-owners pulled out. She sold the building for $2.6 million in 2014 after the death of her partner, ending her one and only run as landlord.
“The entire time I was a landlord, I rented to folks that worked in nonprofits, artists, etc and I never pushed the rents high,” Brown said. “My attitude was as a landlord, I would rather have people I liked and connected with living around me than getting the highest amount of rent.”
A former tenant, Wandolyn Dessman, who still lives in San Francisco, said in an email that they don’t remember an offer to stay or much else. Neither Brown’s co-owners or former legal counsel responded to requests for comment. Brown and her fellow owners received legal advice to file an owner move-in eviction to protect their landlord rights and preserve tenants’ credit, the supervisor said.
Owner move-in evictions, which require at least a year of residency, are problematic in tenant rights circles. In 1998, the San Francisco Tenants Union, which first drew attention to Brown’s eviction, put forward a ballot measure approved by voters that limited such evictions to one per building after recognizing it as an issue.
UPDATE, 10/15: Mary Packer, one of the evicted tenants, came forward. While she doesn’t know the other tenants’ payment history, she says she paid her rent every month and was not asked to stay. Packer says she moved out by May 1994, just one month after records show the eviction notice was dated.
“How can you pay your rent when there’s a notice?” Packer says. “[Brown] did not work with us, she did not ask us about increasing our rent, she didn’t communicate with us at all. If she had offered me a rent increase, if I could pay extra rent to stay there, I would’ve stayed. She did not give me that option.”
Packer also says the building was in a liveable condition with heaters in each unit. Thomas Cotton, the tenant who Brown took to court, lived in the unit next to him even after being separated from his wife. He died in 2008 and did not use the unit as storage, she says.
The eviction rendered her homeless for a brief period, sleeping on her godmother’s couch until her friend found her a place on Haight Street. (The friend, Helen Jackson, confirmed to SF Weekly that Packer was living on a couch until she knew of a spot in an apartment building on Haight Street.)