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Planning Commission rejects controversial Western Addition condo conversion

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Iris Canada sits inside her Western Addition home in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 2017. (James Chan/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

The San Francisco Planning Commission on Thursday handed tenant advocates a victory by unanimously voting to block the condo conversion of a Western Addition apartment building where a 100-year-old woman was evicted last year.

The commission’s vote came after tenant advocates argued at a January hearing that property owner Peter Owens had misled Planning Department staff on the application by failing to state he had evicted Iris Canada from her 670 Page St. apartment on Feb. 10, 2017, after a lengthy legal battle. Owens sought to evict Canada in 2014 after she refused to sign off on the conversion of her apartment into condos.

Canada, who had lived in the apartment for more than half her life, died just a month later after suffering a stroke.

Owens bought the six-unit apartment building at 668-878 Page St. in 2002 with plans for the condo conversion and evicted all of the building’s long-term tenants, excepted for Canada, by way of the Ellis Act. After a legal fight, the senior was granted a “life estate” agreement in 2005 that allowed her to stay in her home until she died and gave her the status of an owner.

SEE RELATED: Long-time Western Addition resident engaged in eviction battle

But Owens claimed Canada had not been occupying the unit since 2012, and was instead residing with her family in the East Bay, thus breaking the terms of the life estate. After a judge ruled in his favor, Owens offered to let Canada stay if she agreed to sign off on the conversion deal.

Canada refused, and her request to buy the unit at below market rate was, in turn, denied by Owens, who eventually succeeded in evicting the senior after the Sheriff’s Department changed her locks in February 2017.

Owens was not present at Thursday’s hearing, but Jeff Pierce, a resident of the building at 688 Page St., said he planned to support Owens in appealing the decision at the Board of Supervisors.

“I don’t think what happened today is right,” said Pierce, adding that he shared a wall with Canada for five years and attested to Owens’ claims that the senior didn’t actually live in the building.

“For five years, there was no activity in that unit except for the few occasions when they had activists protest or when they had reporters there,” Pierce said. “She never lived there. The fact that they say she was being evicted was totally wrong because she was an owner. Otherwise, we would have never needed her signature on the condo conversion paperwork.”

But the fact that the locks were changed on Canada in 2017 appeared to be proof enough of an eviction for the commissioners who voted to reject the conversion.

SEE RELATED: 100-year-old woman dies a month after eviction from Western Addition apartment

“I think this is where we really have to draw the line — you folks bought the building and people were Ellised,” Commissioner Dennis Richards said. “You saying you are creating homeownership opportunities for people, when you are actually getting rid of people, is just talking through both sides of your mouth.”

After activists brought the legal battle to the attention of the Planning Commission, commissioners directed planning staff to verify information listed on the application and twice continued a vote on the matter. After a review of the application and court documents, staff recommended the commission deny the conversion request.

For tenant advocates who led the fight to keep Canada in her home, the decision was a clear victory.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee said his organization was formed by “seniors back in 1979 to fight the evictions that were happening of seniors for condo conversions.”

“It feels like we’ve come full circle,” he said. “Here, we’ve protected a senior. Unfortunately, it was after she died, but we tried our best to stop her from being evicted. At least we are not going to allow them to profit off of her death.”

Avicolli Mecca added the HRC, as well as other tenant advocacy groups, were prepared to continue the fight for Canada’s home, should Owens move to appeal the decision.

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