Mike Koozmin/the S.F. ExaminerGalina

Tenants in mixed-use buildings face unique eviction risk

Visitors to Michael and Galina Fridman's home walk by a TV repair shop when entering their Van Ness Avenue building, and pass by offices for dentists and optometrists in the hallway before reaching the couple's small-but-comfortable fourth-floor apartment.

Those offices are the reason why the building's new owner is moving to evict the couple and the rest of their residential neighbors — and the commercial space is also why this case could bode ill for other tenants in mixed-use housing in San Francisco, observers say.

The longtime San Francisco couple — Michael, 76, and Galina, 68, have lived in The City since fleeing political repression in the Soviet Union 42 years ago — have paid $1,400 for their 485-square-foot rent-controlled unit at 2107 Van Ness Ave. near Pacific Avenue for the last nine years, they said Monday.

All was well until February, when the building was sold in a bankruptcy sale to a Fremont-based investor.

The new landlord stopped accepting rent checks immediately, and then moved this fall to evict the couple, alleging that they're illegally using the space for a residence, according to records.

It's not clear how many tenants the landlord is trying to evict. Court records for unlawful detainers are sealed for two months after filing, but at least nine others in seven units in the building have also been served with evictions, according to attorney Steve Collier of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who is representing the tenants.

It's also not clear how many units are already empty, though Michael Fridman guesses the building is at least “half-empty.”

The building went on the market for $5.8 million last year before selling in January for $8.4 million, according to property listings that also say the building was sold “as-is … subject to existing Tenant's [sic] rights.”

The owner, Yue Yue LLC, is managed by a man named Edmund Jin, according to property records.

Messages left at Jin's Fremont home and with his San Francisco attorney, Paul Utrecht, were not immediately returned this week.

On the couple's lease is a sentence that says the building can't be used for residences. However, that line is crossed out, and the lease also has an appendix authored by the former owner — a charitable trust with a mission to rent to artists (Michael is a sculptor) — that specifically allows for the couple to live in their unit.

And according to documents discovered by the couple, the building has always had tenants in residential apartments.

Original planning maps describe the building as apartments. A building permit from 1946 and a certificate of occupancy from 1947 chronicle a conversion to “offices and stores,” a fact that the landlord's attorney is seizing upon as grounds for eviction, according to an October letter.

However, it appears residential apartments always remained. Building permits issued at the property in the 1980s reference apartments and offices, according to records.

The City may intervene and make a determination — the Department of Building Inspection is “investigating” the nature of the building, a spokesman said — but in the meantime, the episode may spell trouble for residents of other mixed-use buildings without solid documentation.

Commercial space is at a premium as well as residential space. If the landlord is successful in emptying this mixed-use building of its tenants, it could serve as a blueprint other building owners might follow, advocates say.

“If we didn't have a strong commercial rental economy now with the tech boom, this wouldn't be happening,” Collier said. “It's not fair and it's not right.”

Since the ouster is not even an Ellis Act eviction — which would prohibit the unit being rented again for five years — if the tenants lose, they receive no financial compensation.

“This [eviction] is not unusual … this is a sickness in The City,” Michael Fridman said. “But how many other people live in buildings like ours?”

Galina Fridman offers an answer, and a warning: “All of Van Ness Avenue.”

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