By Julie Pitta
Santos has the rough hands that speak of a lifetime of hard work. These days, the 63-year-old man heads to a neighborhood market where he unloads boxes and crates, and stocks store shelves. A rent-controlled apartment in the Inner Richmond allows him to hold on – just barely – to a life in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Two months ago, Santos’s quiet existence was upended. His landlord, Veritas, a local company that operates thousands of San Francisco apartments, moved to evict him. Veritas claimed that Santos had failed to pay a single month’s rent, amounting to $1,500. Veritas, for reasons that remain unclear, failed to cash his rent check.
It should be noted: Santos had never – not once – missed a month’s rent.
A minor mistake with tragic consequences? The truth is not so simple. Veritas buys rent-controlled buildings. Its business plan is based on converting individual apartments into market-rate units. It’s a common practice among corporate landlords. The difference is that Veritas, the City’s largest, with $72 million in revenue and some 5,000 units under management, is more ruthless in carrying out its agenda.
In 2019, more than 100 Veritas renters sued the landlord for harassment. Among their complaints was that the firm targeted tenants in rent-controlled apartments, allowing their homes to fall into disrepair, ignoring asbestos and mold, and invading renter privacy. For its part, Veritas vigorously denied the charges. What is hard to ignore are the countless evictions Veritas regularly pursues through the courts.
In the days after rent was due, Veritas moved to evict Santos from the apartment he has lived in for 15 years. (Santos, who speaks only Spanish, was unable to read eviction notices sent to him by Veritas and the court.) Word of his plight eventually reached Brad Hirn, a lead organizer for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF). The organization is a nonprofit founded in 1979 by a group of elderly parishioners at Old St. Mary’s Church. It was organized around condo conversions displacing San Francisco seniors. Today, it takes on all manner of landlord/tenant disputes, like the one that nearly left Santos homeless.
By the time Hirn caught wind of Santos’s predicament, an eviction date was set. Only 36 hours stood between Santos and homelessness.
One of Hirn’s first calls was to District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan. Few elected officials have been as fierce in advocating for tenants as Chan. (Another, it should be noted, is Supervisor Dean Preston, a practicing tenants’ rights lawyer before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.) Not only did the Richmond supervisor grow up in a rent-controlled Chinatown apartment, she represents a district in which about 60% of residents are tenants.
Santos’s attorney tried reasoning with the Veritas attorney assigned to the case to no avail. A wrinkle in the law states that once a landlord files an eviction lawsuit with the court, it no longer has to accept money for any outstanding balance. Had Veritas been willing to accept another rent check, Santos could have remained in his apartment under the existing rental agreement.
Instead, the company offered a new lease: The rent was set at market-rate, significantly higher than the $1,500 a month Santos had previously paid. A Sheriff’s Deputy arrived the morning of Feb. 1 to remove Santos from his apartment and change the locks on his door. Santos was now homeless. Luckily, a neighbor offered him a bed for the night.
A serious setback, to be sure, but Chan wasn’t willing to abandon hope. She convinced Veritas management to meet with her and Hirn. After tense negotiations, the firm relented and accepted Santos’ missed rent payment.
“Veritas likes to think of itself as an ethical company,” Hirn said. “Santos’s situation had the potential to make them look very bad. Supervisor Chan’s [pressure] was critical to keeping Santos in his apartment.”
The company issued a new lease with a 1% rent increase, as stipulated by San Francisco’s rent-control law. After returning home from work that day, Santos received a new set of keys to his home.
My friend, former District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, once told me that government must work for the people who have no one in their corner. Veritas had a phalanx of lawyers, including a dedicated City Hall lobbyist. In short, it had all the might that money can buy. Santos had a tireless tenants’ rights activist and a dedicated public servant. It was a David and Goliath battle complicated by a ticking time clock.
“The best way to solve homelessness is to prevent it from happening in the first place,” Chan said.
In this case, David won. In a City that’s often hostile to working people, it’s an all-too-rare victory.
Julie Pitta is a member of the executive board of the Berniecrats. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at email@example.com.
Heartfelt thanks to Supervisor Chan and the Housing Rights Commission for helping keep Santos in his apartment. Without their involvement this tenant would have been another victim of developer’s incompetence, or perhaps their greed. And thank you, Julie Pitta, for telling this story that had such a happy ending.
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With Veritas, there are no such things as accidents. Everything is by design- especially as pertains to rent controlled tenants. There is staff dedicated to pure design of profit to their own, their investors AND their lobbyist. All carefully drawn up and calculated. So many have a bulls-eye in their back and not even aware. Be aware!
We’ve all got a number assigned make no mistake and they follow a variety of tactics to achieve. That Santos always paid his rent merits repeating.
Thank you Supervisor Chan and you staff- from one SF born and raised tenant to another, thank you. It goes without saying that Brad and the entire staff of SFHRC are dedicated to trying to right the wrongs of these bad actor landlords. In the process, we all should be learning alongside and lending a voice of support.
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Thanks to Julie Pitta for this important story, to the Housing Rights Committee of SF for its defense of tenants, and to Connie Chan for her advocacy. I hope everyone who reads this will take a few minutes out of their week to share this story with other Richmond District neighbors. Eviction is a brutal destructive event in a person’s or a family’s life. Those of us who care about our neighborhoods, our neighbors, cannot allow Veritas and others to use eviction as a financial tool to jack up the profits. The story of Santos had a happy ending, and we applaud that. But there are too many similar stories that don’t have happy endings. Want to do something to resist the efforts of corporate landlords buying up our city? Take a few minutes this week to talk about this story at your dinner table or PTA meeting, to share it, to post it, tweet it.
Thanks Julie for this is an important story and news about this success for HRC and Supervisor Connie Chan, and, of course, for Santos. Veritas has been gaming the rent control laws in San Francisco for many years. Other landlords have adopted the “Veritas” way. But now in a little bit of karma Veritas is defaulting on loans for a third of their portfolio. There is an opportunity for the City and County to take a large chunk of vulnerable naturally occurring affordable housing and place it in the hands of non-profits like the local Community Land Trust to ensure its affordability in perpetuity.