Supervisor candidate Catherine Stefani sued by tenant for ‘wrongful eviction’

Time for a pop quiz: Who’s San Francisco’s biggest constituency?

Is it the dreaded NIMBY’s? Bzzzt, wrong. Muni riders? Bzzzt, wrong again! Techies? Heck naw. A stack of their votes doesn’t even outweigh an e-scooter.

No, dear readers, one of the biggest and perhaps key constituencies in San Francisco is renters, who in this city are particularly vulnerable to evictions and landlord shenanigans.

It’s in that electoral context that I bring you this news: Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the Marina and Pacific Heights, is being sued for wrongful eviction by her tenant.

That may spell trouble for Stefani, who was appointed by then-mayor Mark Farrell and is facing an electoral challenge this November. Though the suit itself was brought last year, it came to my ears when a tipster noticed a phone poll last month conducted by EMC Research asking how voters might react to Stefani being an alleged bad landlord.

Just how bad a landlord she and her husband were is certainly up for debate, but it wouldn’t come as a shock to see her opponents — BART board director Nick Josefowitz, Schuyler Hudak, or John Dennis — capitalize on the suit.

In the complaint, Stefani’s tenant, Clifton Thomas, alleges Stefani and Christopher Bankovitch engaged in “unfair business practices” as his landlords, and caused him to suffer severe “mental, emotional, and physical stress.” He also alleges Stefani engaged in a “wrongful eviction” by essentially allowing ongoing construction to prevent him from staying in his apartment for eight-and-a-half months, and is asking for damages in excess of $100,000.

The apartment in question is on Greenwich and Lyon streets, right on the border of the Marina and the Presidio, in a neighborhood known as Cow Hollow. As a Cow Hollow-bred San Franciscan, I can tell you it is exactly where someone would shoot a cheesy soap opera like “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Holy Christmas How Are You So Rich!?”

The bottom unit has been rented under Thomas’ lease since July 1986. Stefani and Bankovitch bought the property in 2009 and in July 2016 began construction on the downstairs unit where Thomas lived, which involved resurfacing the exterior, upgrading the electrical system, and reconfiguring the downstairs living room. Thomas gave notice he’d be on vacation from Nov. 2016 though January 2017.

Here’s where it all goes to pot: Stefani started demolition/construction inside Thomas’ apartment, allegedly with “no notice,” according to the complaint. Meanwhile, Thomas came home from his vacation early, in December.

“Upon returning to the premises,” the complaint alleges, Thomas “discovered the premises in a state of demolition, including but not limited to, no hot water, no heat, portions of walls opened and electrical wiring and insulation exposed, and boarded windows.” His personal belongings were “inaccessible due to the demolition and/or construction activities.”

What a rude awakening, right?

The upshot was, Thomas could no longer live in the premises, the complaint reads, effectively kicking him out while construction proceeded. So Thomas went to live in Beaufort, South Carolina, and continued to return to San Francisco “regularly” because of his business appointments.

He ended up paying rent for eight and a half months while not spending a single night sleeping in the apartment.

In March, he moved back in — yet nothing was up to snuff, he alleged. There were holes in the walls, mold in the fridge, and when he went to lay down in his own bed, he discovered it had been disassembled and hastily re-assembled — because it collapsed underneath him.

Stefani’s aide Jack Gallagher sent a statement from the supervisor.

“After my husband and I remodeled our house, including Mr. Thomas’s unit, we welcomed him back immediately, at the same rent. He currently lives right above us in a completely updated unit, and he is welcome to continue living there for as long as he would like to stay,” Stefani said. “I cannot make a more detailed statement at this time, because litigation is still ongoing, but I will say that we value Mr. Thomas as a tenant, we are currently in settlement negotiations, and we are determined to reach an amicable resolution.”

While this all sounds pretty rough for Thomas, political consultants I spoke with were uncertain tenant troubles would hurt Stefani in her District 2 race, which encompasses Pacific Heights, the Marina District, and other tony neighborhoods.

Jim Ross, a political consultant who worked on Gavin Newsom’s Care Not Cash campaign in 2002, said “I think that it could certainly be an issue in the race, renters will care about it,” depending on how Stefani addresses it. “How she deals with it matters more than the issue itself,” he said. If she’s upfront about it, explains it clearly, it may vanish as an issue.

But if Josefowitz pulls out the big bucks on the issue, he said, it may stick.

David Latterman, a political consultant and principal with Brick Circle Advisors, said “I seriously doubt” District 2 residents will care about the issue.

“It’s just not gonna play. It’s not like she evicted an 82-year-old woman for the hell of it, it sounds like okay, the construction wasn’t finished,” he said.

Even though District 2 by far has the most renters of any San Francisco neighborhood, since they tend to be more wealthy, they vote more conservatively — in San Francisco terms.

“This is not a place that has sympathies like the Haight or Mission, or so forth,” Latterman said. “They vote, and caucus, like homeowners.”

And in this town? Homeowners have very little sympathy for tenants.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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