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Artists fight eviction from warehouse at SF Rent Board

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A group of artists who live in a warehouse in Bernal Heights are facing eviction. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A group of artists who are facing eviction from a warehouse in Bernal Heights have turned to the San Francisco Rent Board for help in a legal battle against their landlord.

The artists were served with an eviction notice from the warehouse on Peralta Avenue after a fire killed three dozen people in December at an artist collective in Oakland called the Ghost Ship. They have since refused to leave their space and filed a petition with the Rent Board in January, asking for greater protections from eviction under the rent control ordinance of 1979.

The decision could bolster the tenants’ argument in San Francisco Superior Court, where they are fighting an unlawful detainer case for staying at the warehouse.

“San Francisco is an important city of culture,” said Nathan Cottam, a warehouse tenant. “The arts must be subsidized in some way or they will disappear. There are many different types of subsidies. This is just one of them.”

The Rent Board heard their argument for more than six hours Thursday, according to Executive Director Robert Collins. He said the board has to decide whether the landlord rented the space for commercial or residential use.

“The basic issue is that they have asked the Rent Board to determine whether the rent ordinance has jurisdiction over their tenancy,” Collins said. “Was it rented by the landlord for these folks to live in, or was it a commercial tenancy?”

He added, “It won’t be a simple case.”

Cottam and his housemates claim the landlord has turned a blind eye to them while collecting a check for years. But in an interview last month, the landlord claimed he rented out the space as a commercial property and did not know people lived there.

Testimony accepted Thursday at the Rent Board included a March 6 letter from Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who argued in support of the tenants.

“It has long been the practice of landlords to accept rent checks while meticulously blinding themselves to the residential use of their buildings,” Ronen wrote. “The tenants keep quiet or risk exposing themselves and losing their homes while city officials are lax in enforcement of codes. These practices led to the tragic deaths of 36 people in Oakland.”

The Rent Board is expected to make a decision within six to eight weeks, according to Collins.

The case in San Francisco Superior Court is scheduled to be heard before a jury later this month unless a settlement is reached.

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