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A face behind San Francisco’s gentrification problem

By Austin Meyer | 10 Jul 2014

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San Francisco resident Benito Santiago, 63, lived in his Mission District apartment for 37 years before getting his Ellis Act eviction notice in November of 2013. Santiago is one of an increasing number of San Francisco seniors who are facing rising rents and eviction.

Santiago — a ballroom-dance instructor, and teacher for special needs children in the San Francisco Unified School District — is energetic yet frail. He walks with a cane and wears an array of colored cowboy hats.

For nearly four decades, Santiago has called his apartment on Duboce Avenue home. Today, each room is a time capsule. Drums and percussion instruments line the floors. Dance instruction books paint the shelves. In one room, a sleeping pad and tarp make up his bed, an image that calls back memories of Santiago’s homeless days before getting his apartment.

“I have a lot of history here,” said Santiago. “I’ve gone from a starving artist hustling for dance students, to having a real job.”

For years, Santiago held many odd jobs around San Francisco, making just enough money to cover the monthly rent of $575.

“Being in this space has allowed me to focus on my art without having to worry about survival,” said Santiago. “As long as I have my apartment over my head, I can give more to the community.”

Around Thanksgiving of 2013, Benito arrived home to a notice on his door. He was being Ellis Act evicted. The Ellis Act is a state law that was designed to allow a property owner to leave the rental business, thereby vacating rental units. However, the Ellis Act is being abused. Groups of investors are buying property as landlords seek retirement or pass away, and they are evicting tenants by using the Ellis Act. Speculators buy property hoping to flip the apartments into an easy profit.

Suddenly, the prospect of not having a roof over Santiago’s head was all too real.

“They wanted me out so they could turn the building into condominiums,” said Santiago. “I didn’t know what to do. I had sleepless nights.”

Santiago was offered a $20,000 buyout and was told to be out in one month. He started giving away tables and chairs, slowly offloading what he could. Even with the $20,000 dollars, he would only be able to afford living in his apartment for five months.

“When I found out that the going rate for this apartment was $4,000 dollars a month, and not $575 like what I am paying,” laughed Santiago. “I mean how am I going to afford that?”

Santiago reconsidered the offer and along with other tenants in his building, began to fight the eviction. He filed appeals as a senior citizen on disability. He went on protests and fought for tenants’ rights.

“I’m going to stand my ground and see if I can make a difference,” said Santiago. “I’m going to speak up for myself and speak up for the seniors, the disabled, the educators, the students and the families who give to the community and then are being displaced.”

As of July 1, Santiago continues that fight as he remains in his apartment. His Ellis Act Eviction appeals are pending, and the next chapter of his life with his apartment is unwritten.

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