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Amid San Francisco's Housing Crisis, an Organization Turns Vacant Buildings into Squats

Homes Not Jails scouts out empty buildings in the city and turns them into squats for those who can't afford to pay San Francisco's steep rent.

Photo via Homes Not Jails Facebook page

This is an excerpt of the letter my new subletter forwarded to my landlord, after she demanded to know the actual monthly rent I paid for my rent-controlled apartment:

I am a senior executive professional in the world of technology... I indicated to Mr. Leon that if he cannot provide this information, then I would find other means by which to exercise my right.

The chain of events that would eventually cause me to lose my one-bedroom, rent-controlled San Francisco apartment were already in motion. My subletter—a senior executive professional in the world of technology—had moved to San Francisco less than a year ago, and now she was holding my apartment hostage. I had advertised my accommodations on Craigslist while I moved to New York for work, knowing that if I gave up my rent-controlled apartment, I would never be able to afford living in San Francisco again. Now, she was trying to reverse the situation, blackmailing me so she could keep the place for herself.

San Francisco is full. By the end of this year, the city is projected to have an apartment vacancy rate of only 3.2 percent. My furnished apartment was being sublet for $2,075—far less than the market price. An average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is listed at $3,880 and the medium studio goes for $2,722.

Economic Darwinism has driven out anyone in San Francisco who makes under $80K. Even an office temp making $15 an hour couldn't afford to live in the city without roommates; if their landlord boots them out, they could find themselves in a dire situation. And then there are those who do not have cushy office jobs, who do not make $15 an hour, and who do not have a place to live at all. Those are the people who inspired Homes Not Jails.

"A produce tie wrapped around a door or gate is very effective: see if it's broken when checking back to determine if someone has been inside." —Steve, Homes Not Jails

Homes Not Jails was formed in 1992, long before the tech boom turned San Francisco's rents into the most expensive in the country. The organization emerged out of the activist groups Food Not Bombs and the San Francisco Tenants Union, and committed to housing homeless people through direct action.

At the heart of the organization is the belief that housing is an inalienable right. Homes Not Jails believes that prisons are the only form of public housing the government has truly invested in over the past five decades, and so as long as there are people living on the street, they will break into unused buildings to turn them into temporary housing.

Read: Visiting the Last Remnants of San Francisco's Low-Income Apartment Buildings

It's made up of people like Brian (not his real name), whose unemployment benefits were about to run out and who needed to find housing in the priced-out renters market. On a recent evening, I tagged along with Brian and Steve (also not his real name), one of Homes Not Jails' volunteer activists, to scout out potential buildings for Brian to squat in. Before we left, we stopped by Homes Not Jails' headquarters to pick through labeled boxes filled with all the necessities a squatter needs to secure a San Francisco property: crowbars, lock cutters, dead bolts, screwdrivers, tape, nails, lock pickers, sleeping bags, car batteries for electricity, flashlights.

"Monday and Tuesday nights are ideal times to look for places—people usually go to bed early," stated Steve as we walked along the silent streets of the Mission district. "The best time is after 11 PM."

Though it's risky to occupy a building that someone else owns, police can't take action to remove the squatters unless a property owner files an unlawful detainer lawsuit and signs a form to give them authority. The legal consequences usually result in a citation. Even then, the charges are seldom more than a "suspicion of trespassing" misdemeanor. If property is damaged in the process—like breaking a window or cutting a deadbolt—there could also be a vandalism charge, which is why Homes Not Jails prefers sneaking in through open windows or other unobtrusive means. Building owners will sometimes make cash offer to squatters to evict them, rather than bothering with the lengthy hassles of the legal process.

As we walked, Steve told me how to find a place to squat: First look online at the lists of foreclosed homes (ushud.com has updated listings) and vacant properties in need of repairs. "It doesn't mean the place is viable," Steve said, "but that's a start."

Then you look to see who owns the property from the site and do a little online digging. "Are their taxes paid up? Do they have any leans? The best leads are to get addresses of places you see on your daily routine."

On nights like this one, spent canvasing potential properties, everyone wears black stocking caps and zips up their jackets. Steve grabbed a backpack of equipment and the away team headed out. Sheets of paper with addresses in hand, we steered through the heart of the Mission to check out a street-level unit that was scouted the night before. "Those lights weren't on last night," Steve noted.

When a property looks like it might be vacant, Steve suggests you secure the entrance with a piece of tape and wire. "A produce tie wrapped around a door or gate is very effective: see if it's broken when checking back to determine if someone has been inside," Steve explained. Also, check on garbage day: A vacant building won't put out garbage.

"Scout it out to see if it's truly vacant," Steve said. "Look through the windows and shine a flashlight through a mail slot. You don't want to get inside and hear someone snoring—it's the worst feeling in the world."

Under California law, a person who lives on the property for more than 30 days is considered a "tenant," so you can't just kick them out. This is why squatting works: If you can find your way into a vacant building and put down roots (have mail sent there, put the utilities in your name, etc.) for a month, then you have some legal claim to it.

My subletter, who lived at my apartment for several months, was entitled to these same benefits, so I really had no legal recourse to boot her out. Technically, any Airbnb guest could turn someone's apartment into a squat, and eviction would be a long, difficult, and costly process. San Francisco tenant attorney Joseph Tobener told the San Francisco Bay Guardian he gets 15 calls a week on Airbnb, falling under four categories: landlords evicting tenants to rent units through Airbnb, tenants complaining about neighbors using Airbnb, tenants being evicted for subletting through Airbnb, and most intensely, Airbnb hosts who can't get guests to leave.

The number of no-fault evictions in San Francisco soared from 664 in 2012 to 1,432 in 2013. That's a 216 percent jump in one year.

With one month left in her sublease agreement, the senior executive professional in the world of technology was angered when I told her it wouldn't be possible to stay two additional two months as stated on our agreement because I was moving back to San Francisco; she was now going to take action to make sure she stayed even longer; threatening to rat on me to my landlord—which would cause me to get evicted—or having me pay her the difference in rent.

A San Francisco landlord will use any reason possible to evict a tenant who has a rent-controlled apartment so they can quadruple the rent, making room for some millionaire who just created an app that allows people to draw funny mustaches on cat photos. The number of no-fault evictions in San Francisco soared from 664 in 2012 to 1,432 in 2013. That's a 216 percent jump in one year. An annual report issued by the Eviction Defense Collaborative highlighted some of the outrageous reasons greedy landlords use to evict longtime tenants. Violations cited included such offenses as "parking outside the parking lines" and cooking during nighttime hours.

Photo via Flickr user Rick

Under the Ellis Act, San Francisco landlords can evict tenants to jack up the rent, as long as they give them a relocation payout between $5,555.21 and $16,665.59. The law, which was meant to protect landlords who wanted to "go out of business" or change the use of the building, has turned into an easy way for landlords to push out rent-controlled tenants and increase the rent. Between 2010 and 2013, Ellis Act evictions spiked 170 percent as the San Francisco real estate market skyrocketed. This past February, there were 40 Ellis Act evictions alone; and 20 to 30 each month since.

Steve was very familiar with the foibles of the Ellis Act. As we navigated our course, passing several homeless people sleeping in corridors, Steve pointed out a 46-unit SRO that has been vacant since 1991. The owner had refused to sell the property to groups wanting to turn it into low-income housing. In 2010, Homes Not Jails staged a public occupation of the building to demonstrate the availability of vacant housing for the homeless.

Photo via Homes Not Jails Facebook page

Toward the end of the night, we came cross an eight-unit apartment building that has stood vacant for the last five years. Steve had already been inside the building. Tonight, he was going to secure the space for squatters.

"You post up here," Steve said, positioning me across the street. Steve then turned to Brian: "I want you to hold your bike so I can climb up the side of the building and grab onto the fire escape. If there's any danger, or you see someone paying too much attention, I want you to text me."

The duo strolled far down the block and then crossed the street. After a small trickle of people passed, Brian held his bike steady and Steve quickly scaled Spiderman-style up the side of the building towards the roof, disappearing out of sight.

I watched the vacant building until 3 AM. Then Brian finally got the text: The building has been secured for squatting. A door had been opened and Brian looked reassured that he would have a place to live once his unemployment benefits ran out.

Read: How to Be a Landlord in San Francisco

In the end, I lost my San Francisco rent-controlled apartment. My subletter submitted an application to take over my apartment, but once she found out that rent was going to be 300 percent more, she moved to a less expensive neighborhood.

The landlord won; raising the rent higher than a kite powered by Google when I moved out. I never moved back to San Francisco, where Brian still lives, hoping he can keep a roof over his head.

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