A household that includes San Francisco drag queens fighting to remain in their home alleges that sexual discrimination on the part of their landlords has led to an eviction filed in “bad faith.”
The group of long-time tenants of1779-1781 15th St., which includes three drag queens, a gay man and a straight woman, scoffed at the owners’ $50,000 offer, split amongst the five tenants. to vacate their homes under threat of the Ellis Act, which allows California landlords wishing to exit the rental market to evict residential tenants.
They contend that the eviction was motivated by the owners’ disapproval of their lifestyles, rather than an earnest desire to retire as landlords.
“I go to work every day in drag,” said Fredy Miranda, who for 30 years has managed Divas SF, a transgender bar located in the Tenderloin District, and goes by the drag name ‘Alexis.’ Miranda lives alone in one of three units in the building.
“They try to avoid me every time we come and go. We had some run ins — no verbal exchange but I know disapproval when I see it,” said Miranda.
In response to the Ellis Act eviction filed in June 2017, the tenants, some of whom have lived in the building for more than two decades, sued landlords Leslie Wan and Brian Keller last October for unfair treatment based on sexual discrimination, as was first reported by the Bay Area Reporter.
An attempt at mediation between the parties failed— the case is set to go to trial in November.
According to Miranda, troubles began shortly after Wan and Keller took over the building in 2014. Two gay men living in a top floor apartment were displaced, and Wan and Keller briefly rented out the apartment for some $5,000 per month before moving into the unit themselves in 2015, he said.
A previous eviction attempt was made against Richard Padilla (a.k.a. Renita Valdez), Donald Branchflower (a.k.a. Logos Branchflower), William Carmichael (a.k.a. Lucille Carmichael), and Padilla’s niece, Jennifer Emperador, who occupy the unit above Miranda’s.
In October 2014, Wan and Keller filed for an owner move-in eviction at that unit, which was later dismissed after the tenants fought back.
Once under the same roof, tensions escalated between the tenants and their landlords.
“In 2016 there were a couple of letters written by Wan telling the tenants that she was planning to do renovations to the backyard and that they had to move their things out,” said Raquel Fox, an attorney for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who is representing the tenants, adding that those renovations never took place.“Here we are two years later…and the yard is still in a state of chaos. We believe the reason this was done was because a lot of the drag queens would gather there..and hang out.”
Miranda said that prior to the Wan and Keller moving in, the tenants hosted barbecues in the backyard “six to seven times a year,” but that Wan removed their outdoor furniture and barred the tenants from hosting friends there.
The lawsuit also alleges that Wan instructed her son to “cover his eyes” when Padilla passed them, clad in drag, and threw out clothes used for drag by Padilla and Miranda that were kept in a common storage area.
Andrew Zacks, an attorney representing Wan and Keller, called the allegations of discrimination “totally fabricated.”
“They will have to leave whether they accept that or not. This is about the tenants’ refusal to follow the law,” said Zacks, adding Wan and Keller, who own condominiums in The City and in Chicago, planned to occupy the entire home with their family.
“My clients don’t have an ounce of discrimination in their body,” said Zacks. “They are a lovely young family simply trying to make their way in this city like everyone else.”
But tenant advocates and City leaders organizing to keep the tenants housed said the case is indicative of a larger issue of displacement affecting vulnerable communities in San Francisco.
“The City is being de-gayed, and this is a prime example of that,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a senior organizer at the Housing Rights Committee. “San Francisco is still the safest place for queer and trans folks to be living. If we lose this refuge, what happens to our community? This is a safety zone…we want to preserve that.”
Rafael Mandelman, the Castro District’s newly elected supervisor, said that Ellis Act evictions are a “continuing problem” throughout his district and The City.
“It’s frustrating, this has been going on for decades and the state legislature has not acted,” he said. “We haven’t come up with effective local tools to end these kinds of speculative eviction.”
Tenant organizers are planning a rally outside of 1779-1781 15th St from 5-8 p.m. on Monday. With the help of their supporters, the tenants are currently exploring The City’s small sites acquisition program in the hope that purchasing their building will resolve their impending eviction.
“For me San Francisco is a sanctuary, this is my home,” Miranda said. “Everybody here who lives my lifestyle knows that when you leave, you have to watch your back. ”