For more than a quarter-century, Ted Gullicksen piloted the San Francisco Tenants Union, the only fiercely independent renters-rights organization of its size and longevity in The City.
News of his sudden death two weeks ago, just weeks before the November election, leaves the activists he nurtured with the Herculean task of passing the anti-real estate speculation-tax measure, Proposition G, which could be his legacy.
Gullicksen, who was 61 when his roommate found him dead Oct. 14 in his Bayview apartment, took the humble title of office manager of the Tenants Union in 1988, “with his typical humility to reflect the collective nature of the group, his nonautocratic style,” said Bobby Coleman, a longtime organizer with the union.
Through 26 years, Gullicksen, effectively serving as executive director, maintained the union as a member-driven 501(c)(4) organization, which, unlike nonprofits such as the Housing Rights Committee and the Chinatown Community Development Center, never took funding from the government or entities with vested interests and could freely endorse candidates.
The Tenants Union “could not be swayed by outside forces, nor were they afraid to take on the powers to be. Politicians want to be on the right side of the union,” said Sara Shortt, 44, executive director of the Housing Committee.
“If the members hear from the tenants union that X-candidate is not looking out for renters, they will lose those votes and that puts the union in a very powerful position in this city and allows them to use that to make change benefiting renters,” she said.
The Tenants Union, under Gullicksen's guidance, fostered the founding last year of a couple smaller, but similarly militant and stalwart groups fighting for renters' rights in the thick of what they considered a housing and eviction crisis.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, formed in early 2013 by volunteers who research and expose serial evictors and speculators, is housed out of the tenants union's office in the Mission out of invitation. In mid-2013, Eviction-Free San Francisco hit the streets, protesting evictions and staging Google bus blockades funded by only a couple benefits to raise funds for flier printing costs.
At virtually every action, Gullicksen was on the sidelines.
“In many ways, Ted was the backbone of the tenants union and embodied an institutional memory that can't be replicated,” said Erin McElroy, 32, director of the Mapping Project and an organizer with Eviction-Free San Francisco. “But I have faith that he has trained enough people and hopefully that knowledge will be able to grow.”
Coleman would not comment on who will fill Gullicksen's shoes at the Tenants Union.
Of all the devotion Gullicksen put into the renters' fight, he put little into fixing his own troubled situation as a tenant. For nearly 20 years, Gullicksen lived on the bottom floor of a three-story apartment at 1500 Innes Ave., which had been converted into a living quarters without the proper permits, said his roommate, Beth Powder, who moved in during February and fears she may now be evicted from the dwelling.
Gullicksen's landlords would fix issues as they arose until a new landlord, Paige Boger, took over last year, Powder said.
Department of Building Inspection records show two complaints of illegal unit conversions at the address that were filed in May 1999, with one inspection of the building exterior that “revealed no evidence of an illegal unit.”
A family upstairs reportedly moved away due to black mold in the unit. Powder said the landlord at the time used mold-resistant paint to cover black mold that was coming through the ceiling into Gullicksen's unit, but within several months the mold reappeared.
“You can smell the mold in that apartment,” Powder said.
Boger hung up the phone when contacted by The San Francisco Examiner for a comment.
Building inspection records showed six mold or mildew complaints for the property filed in October and November 2013, the last with a status stating the case had been abated upon reinspection.
While no mold complaints were filed with the Department of Public Health, spokeswoman Nancy Sarieh said the department's database records showed complaints for overgrown weeds and garbage accumulation abated in 2004 and trash and debris accumulation abated in 2008.
The Medical Examiner's Office has yet to determine a cause of death for Gullicksen.
“He made what would've been equivalent to minimum wage, and he did it because he knew that nobody else would fight and put the kind of energy as he did,” said Powder, a taxi driver who organized a union for cabbies with Gullicksen's help.
A memorial is planned for Gullicksen on Nov. 16 at Mission High School, but until then, those in his “University of Activists,” as Coleman calls the union, and ally groups are focusing on pushing Prop. G.
The Yes on G campaign has raised $203,000 to push for the tax on the November ballot that would amount to 24 percent of the sale price of a property if it was resold within the first year of purchase and which would drop incrementally to 14 percent if resold within five years. Meanwhile, No on G, with funding from the real estate industry, has raised $1.6 million.
“I don't think there's ever been
this much money spent by the other side,” said Gen Fujioka, who worked with Gullicksen on drafting Prop. G and is policy director at the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Though far outspent, the Yes on G campaign is rallying around Gullicksen's death to empower their cause. Supporters started with a Turnout for Ted precinct walk Saturday morning with about 100 supporters and Gullicksen's dog Falcor, “who loved precinct walks,” Shortt said.
“I do feel like it will be his legacy measure,” Shortt said. “There are people that are saying, 'Prop G for Gullicksen.'”