Whether you love or loathe the holiday season, few would choose to spend this time of the year fighting an eviction. Yet that’s how the year’s ending for Michelle Foy and Fernando Martí of Noe Valley as they prepare for a January trial.
“If we win, the court will have ruled the eviction wasn’t intended in good faith. If we lose, we’ll have to leave, or tie ourselves down ‘til the sheriff arrives,” said Martí, who has lived in one of the Victorian’s two flats since 1998. Foy joined him in 2002, and it’s the only home their 12-year-old child has ever known.
“Carmelo can tell you what he loves about the neighborhood, like how he gets to walk to Casa Mexicana, his favorite taqueria,” said Foy. “His friends mostly live within a mile and he can take the J and walk to school.”
The family has watched the changes, as they’ve come to be called, and reminisce with other longtimers about what’s been lost and what remains in their neighborhood. Remembering is one of the great pastimes and, some might say, privileges of being stable residents of a community. The building’s other tenant also moved in during the ‘90s and shares common history.
“We were talking the other day about the regulars we got to be friendly with who aren’t coming around anymore,” said Martí. I asked if he remembered a big guy with a bad foot who disappeared from 24th Street.
“Len! Haven’t seen him for a while. I heard he got housed in Hayes Valley,” said Martí.
It was a lifetime ago that Len stood outside Aquarius Records, when the Bell Market was not yet Whole Foods and Thoth and the Space Lady were still street musicians and not yet the revered experimental artists they became. Granted, the transformation of Noe Valley from an affordable neighborhood has been underway for decades, but its completion is nigh.
“Then the laundromats started to disappear,” said Martí. “Though one of the things Michelle is probably happy about is the two greasy diners I used to love are gone.”
“Herb’s Fine Foods,” chimed in Foy, remembering the lunch counter.
But Martí and Foy aren’t generally the kind to sit around and recall the good old days; rather, they have invested in moving people to create a more liveable city of the future. Fully engaged participants in their San Francisco lives, they chose a Spanish-immersion preschool for their child who now attends SFUSD’s intentionally diverse San Francisco Community School in the Excelsior.
Foy works in finance for the Chinese Progressive Association, aligning recent immigrants with other marginalized workers to achieve better working conditions. She’s also on the board of the Kendra Alexander Foundation: Its Valencia Street location serves as an outpost for a broad coalition of social justice groups. Martí is an artist who works part time for the Council of Community Housing Organizations on affordable housing and land use policy, and volunteers with PODER, the Latino-led health and environmental justice organization.
“We had a really special weekend a couple of weeks ago for Día de los Muertos,” said Foy. “PODER organized an evening bike ride and a big event at Hummingbird Park, the urban farm in Crocker Amazon. We try to get out there on volunteer days and farm. Fernando talks often about the contradiction of being on stolen land as settlers ourselves. As guests here, what is it we can do respectfully while we’re here?”
Martí was born in Ecuador and raised in Los Angeles by an aunt, now in her ‘90s living in Northern California. Foy is originally from Colorado and has a brother in Berkeley.
“We both lost our last parent in 2018, around the time the building was being sold,” said Foy.
“Fernando’s dad had a stroke and things went downhill. And my mom was diagnosed with cancer and died very shortly after. Hearing the news about the building… I couldn’t integrate the information,” she said.
Martí explained the way the eviction process started, typical of scenarios he’s seen on the job.
“Legally they had to target us first because the other tenant is a senior,” Martí said of his aforementioned neighbor. “One thing they do is gut the space and if they indeed are not nice, they’ll make it difficult for the remaining tenants.”
“They approached us with a buyout and we said we weren’t interested,” he said.
“A big part of the decision to fight it isn’t necessarily about our personal situation but the broader principle of it,” said Foy. “We can use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the realities of speculation and housing for profit, which helps certain people get rich, versus housing as a human right and the ability to live in dignity and survive in a city.”
“Yes, maybe we’re going to be a statistic, yet we’ve been able to stay here so long because of all that struggle and all that fighting,” said Martí. “I was 10 in LA when people were fighting here for the rent control that has given us the ability to stay and do the work we do.”
In his art practice, Martí is conceptualizing how to balance community stories of heartbreak and loss with those of resiliency and resistance. “Like Galería de la Raza,” he said, noting the groundbreaking Chicano arts organization founded in 1970. “They got evicted and are now going to be an owner of their space.”
Resistance and rent controls are what have kept The City from becoming a shadow of its former self. Were it not for those fights, “It would be purely a playground for the rich,” said Foy, gesturing toward a building across the alley.
“They gutted the place and turned it into a three-story mansion where two people lived for seven years then sold it for $4 million. Then two people lived there for a year,” she said. ‘We never talked to them, and they sold it for $5 million. Again, two people are living there and we say hello, but… It feels like the majority of our friends live in the East Bay now.”
Martí said he had just been texting with close friends who ultimately left California.
“They couldn’t find a place they could afford. After a number of ‘we have to move agains,’ they did their financial calculations and family and other calculations and left for western Massachusetts.”
Though that’s not an option for the Foy-Martí family: San Francisco is home.
“We don’t have the story of an extended family elsewhere or one that takes care of our kid,” said Martí. “What we have are a number of friends with whom Carmelo grew up. Every Friday they hang out at someone’s house. They’re kids who’ve known each other since they were babies. These are the things that would be hard to lose. The things you build up over a time and build up over place. We found out during COVID, you can’t replace that with Zoom calls. We’ve tried. It’s different than being able to hug someone.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” More at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan.