Charles Armstrong has known tough times. He and his wife Gina previously lived in single-room-occupancy hotels infested with cockroaches, and dipped in and out of poverty.
Though the room is a tight fit for the couple and their small dog, Armani, they hoped living in the Franciscan Towers, a transitional housing complex at 217 Eddy St. run by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, would be their way out.
“Little did we know it would be the nightmare of all nightmares,” Charles, 36, told me.
He’s not alone.
For months, perhaps years, a manager at the Franciscan Towers allegedly stole as much as $25,000 in rent from residents, I’ve learned.
The explosive allegation became more disturbing to residents living in the 101 households when they received mass notices, as well as individually, from TNDC on Sept. 7 and Sept. 16 claiming they needed to enter repayment plans to account for the allegedly stolen rent.
These tenants are among San Francisco’s most vulnerable. TNDC runs 39 buildings for low-income tenants throughout San Francisco, and its own data shows 82 percent of the tenants make “extremely low” annual incomes of $22,600 or less.
The scheme was allegedly perpetrated by Franciscan Towers manager Zakiya Moten, according to various tenants and an attorney. Moten allegedly told tenants TNDC would no longer accept checks, only money orders, which many obtained from Daldas Grocery, a corner store across the street.
Bill Multani, who runs the store, said he would see at least 50 nearby tenants a month obtaining money orders to pay their rent.
Moten allegedly would cross out “TNDC Franciscan Towers” on the money orders and write her name instead. This is where the tale of the tenants relies mostly on luck: Though liquor store and Western Union money orders are difficult to trace, tenant Edgar Littleton decided to switch up his routine one day in January.
“The line was too long” at Western Union, he told me.
So, Littleton headed to Chase Bank to obtain his money order.
When tenants were told by TNDC they owed back rent, only Littleton could trace his money order. He obtained a copy showing “Franciscan Towers” crossed out and replaced with Moten’s name. He and other tenants banded together, proof in-hand.
On Oct. 5, after the tenants sought legal counsel from attorneys at the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, TNDC sent a letter to its residents apologizing for asking for back rent.
“Since the letter was sent, there has been a serious issue brought to Management’s attention,” the letter reads. “The issue is related to claims that a previous employee may have failed to credit tenants for rent received.”
The apology letter also contained a promise: All outstanding rent balances from Oct. 1, 2015, through March 31, 2017, would be forgiven.
Mark Leno, the former state senator who is running for mayor, was set to be “dunked” in water for a TNDC charity event Wednesday night. He told me TNDC management calmed his fears.
“When they tell me no tenants are at risk, I believe them 100 percent,” Leno said. “I, as well as TNDC, will stand by every tenant who may have been involved in this scam.”
TNDC Executive Director Don Falk told me “we made a mistake” by asking for back rent, and that the situation would be resolved.
Though TNDC said no tenants have been evicted due to back rent owed, the Armstrongs provided me documents showing they were taken to court by TNDC in July over $3,284 in back rent, and have been ordered by the court to pay it.
TNDC said they may seek a court order to see the Armstrongs’ debt to the court “expunged,” in response to my inquiries for this column.
Zeenat Hassan, a staff attorney with AIDS Legal Referral Panel, is not yet convinced all is well.
“I think when you hear what these amounts are, it’s easy to dismiss it as trivial,” she said. “Anything that jeopardizes [these low-income tenants’] housing puts them at a risk of homelessness in a very real way.”
She did appreciate that management responded “quickly,” but wants TNDC to place a hold on all collections, in addition to forgiving back rent.
Cynthia Alvarez, TNDC’s chief portfolio officer, said the amount allegedly stolen from tenants was “less than” $25,000. Moten is also no longer with TNDC, Alvarez said. Though charges have not yet been filed against Moten, Alvarez said, TNDC did contact the police.
“Our hope is that it’s some huge misunderstanding,” Alvarez told me.
“Overall, if something untoward happened, we feel awful about it,” she said. “That’s not why we do the work that we do.”
Some tenants remain unconvinced: Their rent was stolen, and they shouldn’t be on the hook to repay one red cent.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.