Advocates for low-income tenants facing eviction at Parkmerced fear they are being targeted by property managers who want to clean house in advance of a complete overhaul of the sprawling housing complex.
Parkmerced has issued 197 three-day eviction notices in 2011, according to data collected by the rent board. Those numbers are up from last year, when Parkmerced served 134 notices, and represent a sharp spike from 2007-2009, when Parkmerced wrote an average of 12 notices a year.
The eviction notices come as Parkmerced prepares a $1.2 billion redevelopment that the Board of Supervisors approved in May on the condition that management provide greater protection for current tenants.
Tenant rights organizations question whether the notices are a scheme to skirt that agreement and boot low-income tenants before the development. Parkmerced currently has 3,200 apartments and townhomes. When the development project is complete, the campus will have 8,900 units.
“It certainly raises suspicions that this is a convenient tool to rid the development of the lower-income families that they have basically committed to keep housed there in the future,” said Sara Shortt, executive director for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.
Shortt estimated that about 80 of the 197 renters at Parkmerced who have received eviction notices this year for falling behind on their rent or failing to pay utility bills are low-income Section 8 tenants.
P.J. Johnson, a spokesman for Parkmerced, said management is not conniving against tenants and that the notices are unrelated to the planned development. Johnston attributed the increase in notices to an effort by new management to clean up its books. Management will work with tenants to develop a payment plan, he added. “We want our residents to continue to live and thrive at Parkmerced,” Johnston said. “And we also need them to pay their rent.”
Shortt said many tenants were unaware they owed rent or figured management didn’t plan to collect the money because it let the debt pile up without demanding payment.
“It may very well be legal for them to simply not demand anyone pay rent, let it pile up, then suddenly come after tenants for huge sums of back rent,” Shortt said. “But it doesn’t seem fair.”
But Johnston doesn’t buy that argument. He said the tenants’ monthly bills all show how much they owe for the current month and how much they owe for back-rent or unpaid utility bills.
“The idea that any resident doesn’t know that they owe rent is ridiculous,” Johnston said.
A three-day eviction notice means a tenant has three days to settle debt or face court-ordered eviction. While nearly 200 three-day eviction notices have been served this year, Parkmerced has only evicted 14 residents.
The Housing Rights Committee is investigating legal options and also wants The City to take action.
Supervisor John Avalos said the timing of the evictions is suspect.
“They could be making families homeless, and if they’re making families homeless, The City has a responsibility to try to stop that from happening,” said Avalos, who voted against the redevelopment of Parkmerced.
Judson True, an aide to Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, said the supervisor didn’t believe Parkmerced was acting in bad faith.
Nonetheless, Chiu plans to talk with Parkmerced leaders and the district’s supervisor, Sean Elsbernd, about clarifying the billing process, True said.
Second utility bill poses problem for many
For the first time in 10 years, Eric Clark had a home. The Desert Storm veteran was homeless for a decade before signing his lease with Parkmerced in April 2009 and he was ready for the new responsibility.
Until the bills came. More than $60 for water, sewer and garbage from a company in Illinois. Clark, 47, said Parkmerced management told him electricity and gas would be charged separately, but no one mentioned this second utility bill.
It didn’t seem right, so Clark decided not to pay it. And he kept on not paying for 17 months — until the eviction notice came.
“I suspected whatever they were doing was wrong. When they never questioned me not paying, I knew they were wrong,” said Clark, who gets assistance through the Veterans Affairs Supprotive Housing program. Now, he owes $2,200 in unpaid utilities and isn’t sure how he’ll handle the tab — he lives off a veteran’s pension of $985 a month.
Clark is not alone. Eviction woes for many of the 197 Parkmerced tenants who received a three-day eviction notice this year center around confusion over a bill for water, sewer and garbage, which is charged separately from gas and electric, and is collected by a third party, AUM.
Sheila Jackson, 48, had been throwing out mail from AUM. The nondescript envelope looked like junk mail, not a bill, she said.
And besides, she thought she was paying those utilities with her rent. For months she included an extra $20 for utilities with her $244 rent because Parkmerced told her to when she signed the lease, Jackson said. Earlier this month, she found a three-day eviction notice taped to her door, telling her she owed $662.78 in unpaid utilities.
“They just kept taking the extra $20,” said Jackson, a Section 8 tenant. “If it wasn’t right, why didn’t they say anything?”
Jackson has fibromyalgia and gets a disability stipend of $800 a month. That has to cover her $244 portion of the rent, $45 PG&E bill, $132 cable bill, groceries, cellphone fees and bus fare to medical appointments. Even if Parkmerced lets her pay her debt on a schedule, it probably won’t work out, she said.
“I’ll probably wind up just moving,” Jackson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that over the next 30 years Parkmerced will replace 3,200 existing apartments and town homes with 8,900 units. According to a Parkmerced spokesman, only 1,538 units will actually be replaced. When the development project is complete, the campus will have 8,900 total units.