Dot-com-era Bennett Lofts live-work units clash with SF’s current housing crisis

mike koozmin/2013 S.f. Examiner file photoTenants facing evictions or unlawful rent hikes could see monthslong wait times to have their case reviewed due to a heavy workload for the San Francisco Rent Board.

mike koozmin/2013 S.f. Examiner file photoTenants facing evictions or unlawful rent hikes could see monthslong wait times to have their case reviewed due to a heavy workload for the San Francisco Rent Board.

Live-work lofts were a flashpoint during San Francisco’s first dot-com boom over a decade ago, and now they are again wrapped up in a city housing controversy.

No tenants are feeling this more than those living in the several Potrero Hill and South of Market buildings that comprise the Bennett Lofts, where an eviction crisis is threatening to develop.

Before tech bus protests became a symbol of The City’s housing crisis, there were fights over lofts. In the late 1990s, converting commercial space to loft-style housing proved extremely popular with the real estate market and upscale buyers. However, housing activists said lofts encouraged gentrification and displacement, and the then-new left-leaning Board of Supervisors banned new construction outright in January 2001.

Jon Stoa moved into his airy ground-floor loft on Pennsylvania Avenue in Potrero Hill in the early 2000s. He’s not anti-tech — in fact, he worked for Apple as an art director on one of the most important projects in the Silicon Valley titan’s history, the launch of the first iPhone.

But since the lofts were all built in the late 1990s and early 2000s, The City’s strict eviction protections — a short list of violations that landlords can use to oust tenants — do not apply. Stoa and as many as 24 other households in the Bennett Lofts — 147 units in two buildings in Potrero Hill and three in SoMa — received eviction notices last month from property owner Essex Trust. Essex, one of The City’s biggest corporate landlords, acquired the live-work lofts last year for $96 million, or $653,000 a unit, according to real estate trade publication The Registry.

The company is using the “discovery” that it bought illegal units as a pretext to get tenants like Stoa to vacate by June 1, according to a copy obtained by The San Francisco Examiner of the notice given to tenants in March.

And in a twist, Essex appears to be emptying the lofts of the longtime tenants in order to immediately re-rent the units at today’s hefty market rates.

Stoa is paying $2,200 a month for his loft. According to real estate listings on Essex’s website for the Bennett Lofts, units are available now starting at $3,844 for a studio and going up to $5,267 for others.

No one is sure how many people live in the Bennett Lofts’ five buildings or how many residents are getting the boot.

One reason is that the lofts’ former owners put up partitions in some of the units to illegally subdivide one unit into two, according to residents and housing activists. Stoa said he first discovered this when a fuse blew in his loft and he had to go next door to find the fuse box.

But what Essex is doing is legal under both San Francisco’s strict housing rules and state law, said Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district includes Potrero Hill.

“Yes, it’s legal — and so was slavery,” Cohen said. “That doesn’t mean it’s right.”

San Francisco’s healthy economy has led to a cost-of-living and housing crisis that has caught the attention of elected officials from Mayor Ed Lee on down.

While these leaders celebrate The City’s historically low unemployment rate, they are also being pressured by renters and tenant advocates to help them remain in their homes.

In a nod to the atmosphere around evictions, city officials have offered Essex an amnesty-type deal. Unlike other mass evictions in recent memory, The City is not forcing the property owner’s hand.

No notice of violation for illegal units — a usual precursor for this type of eviction — was filed by the Department of Building Inspection, according to records. And city building officials say the units, which appear to meet fire code standards, can be “grandfathered in” and made legal.

But so far the company has “refused to come to the table,” Cohen said.

Essex did not return multiple calls for comment last week.

However, organizers with the Housing Rights Committee said Friday that Essex had agreed to “negotiate” with current tenants.

If Stoa leaves the Bennett Lofts, he will be given 60 days to move and $500 in relocation assistance — or $1,000 if he agrees to move to a market-rate unit at another Essex property, such as Fox Plaza on Market Street.

“That won’t even cover the U-Haul,” he said.

Despite the pressure from city officials, there appears to be little they can do to help Stoa — who said he has lived with AIDS for 20 years and is on full disability following a motorcycle accident — or his neighbors.

Legal reasons for eviction

San Francisco has 15 just-cause reasons for eviction under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. For more information and a list of the most common reasons, visit: http://www.sfrb.org/index.aspx?page=946Bay Area NewsdevelopmentPlanningSan Francisco cost of livingSan Francisco forces of changeSan Francisco housing crisis

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