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Victim Wars: Evictors vs. the Evicted

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Jose and Maria Cardenas have lived in the Mission for 50 years. The couples want to regain control of their Hampshire Street property for the family, but the tenants are refusing to leave. (Courtesy Joel Engardio)

At first glance, this is another sad eviction story in the ongoing saga of San Francisco’s overheated housing market: An elderly Latino couple living in the Mission for 50 years versus millennial newcomers seeking a hip neighborhood.

Yet what kind of story is it if the Spanish-speaking grandparents are the ones doing the evicting?

Jose and Maria Cardenas, 73 and 74, are landlords using the only legal tool they have — the dreaded Ellis Act — to reclaim their one rental unit for a recently married granddaughter who needs a place to live.

Jose and Maria are Mexican immigrants who worked and saved for decades while raising four kids. Jose was a janitor in a downtown office building and Maria made flower ornaments at a Colma cemetery.

They saved enough for a down payment on a two-unit house on Hampshire Street, where they lived in one flat and rented the other. When they needed more space for a fourth child and taking in their parents from Mexico, they bought a larger single-family home in the neighborhood. The rental income from the Hampshire Street units helped cover the mortgages.

When Jose and Maria’s children got married, they lived in the Hampshire Street flats. That’s how they saved to buy their own homes in more affordable cities like Fairfield. Now Jose and Maria want their 12 grandchildren to do the same.

But the four millennial-age tenants currently occupying one of the Hampshire Street units won’t leave.

They identify as “working-class queers” — a women’s shelter director, an arts organization manager, a psychology graduate student and a plant biologist — according to the message they posted on Eviction Free San Francisco’s Facebook page.

They also claimed to be victims of a landlord who doesn’t want to rent to “queer people.” Then they revealed Jose and Maria’s phone number and urged tenant activists to call.

Ugly and hateful messages flooded Jose and Maria’s home for days.

“My mom cried,” said daughter Luz Rodriguez. “She was worried her grandson would think she was two-faced.”

Jose and Maria have a gay grandson they fully embrace. He lives with his husband in his grandparent’s Hampshire Street property — below the tenants who accuse Jose and Maria of being homophobic.

When Jose and Maria invoked the Ellis Act to get out of the rental business and regain control of their property, one of the tenants claimed she was disabled and entitled to a year extension plus a buyout.

Jose and Maria said they are challenging the claim in court because Facebook photos show the tenant sightseeing in Spain, camping at Lake Tahoe and hiking in Costa Rica without a visible disability.

The superior court lawsuit also alleges the tenant — who declined to comment — is illegally subletting and profiting on the unit.

“There are legitimate stories of unjust evictions in the Mission, but that’s not us. We aren’t kicking out people to sell condos,” said Walter Kardum, who married Jose and Maria’s grandson. “These tenants are taking advantage of socioeconomic issues other people are actually dealing with and twisting everything for their own benefit.”

The saddest part of this story is that it embodies 40 years of failed housing policy, starting with a rent control ordinance unrecognizable from its original and noble purpose. The unintended consequences of more than 100 amendments proved exponential as San Francisco refused to create enough new housing to meet demand.

While Jose and Maria lament how much their neighborhood has changed with the influx of wealthier residents driving up prices, they said a proposed moratorium on housing construction in the Mission is “confusing.”

“Isn’t it best to build so people have a place to go?” Maria said. “I feel bad asking the tenants to leave but they can’t have ownership of my house. We worked too hard for it and my family needs it.”

Engardio is a member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, representing the westside. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at info@engardio.com.

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