I attended a rally in support of eviction fighter Benito Santiago as he battles to keep his home of more than 30 years from the clutches of real estate investment company Vanguard Properties. Vanguard and its co-owner Michael Harrison, who also goes by the alias "Pineapple Boy LLC," notified Benito of their intention of evicting him and two other tenants by invoking the state's Ellis Act. We know the scenario — building gets sold, tenants get evicted, and the speculator/investor pimps ride off into the sunset, latte in hand, behind the wheel of a sports car (or utility vehicle).
But what about Benito?
Benito is a teacher with the San Francisco Unified School District. He is a senior with a disability resulting from a car accident more than a decade ago. Benito is a musician — a percussionist — and he teaches music to developmentally disabled children. Despite the effects of the car accident on his mobility, he has dedicated his life to sharing music with children who have benefitted greatly from his love and patience. He is an excellent teacher with a love for life and music is contagious.
Benito lives in his rent-controlled Duboce Triangle unit, but to investors and speculators, there is no room for him. To them, rent control is a cancer, a disease, a rape of the holy mother. Yet it is the evictions that have spread across the city — a 178 percent increase in Ellis Act evictions alone in the last three years — that are the true cancer.
It is not without irony that Benito moved into his unit in 1977, the same year of the eviction of elders of the I-Hotel on Kearny Street. As a Filipino, Benito remembers that event vividly, an event that garnered worldwide attention and support from wide segments of the community in San Francisco for the elder tenants who refused to leave the I-Hotel, the last building standing that was part of a Filipino neighborhood called Manilatown.
There was no room for Manilatown, no room for those brown elders walking around on property that had so much value. Manilatown was systematically removed by speculation and real estate interests. The I-Hotel eventually fell in 1977 with the forcible eviction of its elderly tenants, with baton-wielding police ramming though a human barricade of more than 3,000 supporters who chanted "We Won't Move!"
The year Benito moved into his unit, 1977, was the year that the fight to rebuild the I-hotel began. After a 30-year struggle, it was finally rebuilt — 102 units of affordable senior housing. Many tenant protections arose from the ashes of the I-Hotel struggle. Another irony is that Mayor Ed Lee began his career defending the tenants of the I-Hotel.
Now, 37 years later, we see the desecration of the I-Hotel struggle by the same greedy speculators who do not care for the city. They have been the stewards — not of community, or sharing, or culture — but of eviction, misery, and even death to elders. They disrespect the I-hotel struggle and the elders of the community and the legacy of the I-Hotel. They are a blight to San Francisco.
Benito is fighting his eviction. He is refusing the buyout. The sound of resistance is the sound of Benito's drum, which calls for all of us to rise in defense of our homes. Benito is a part of the Manilatown/I-Hotel Family, and we support his fight, along with Eviction Free SF, his lawyers at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and others in the community. The Manilatown Heritage Foundation/I-Hotel calls for an end to out of control evictions and reparations for elders who have been displaced through eviction via the Ellis Act.
What speculators have done is criminal, nothing less than elder abuse. Their presence is the true blight. Tony Robles works for Senior and Disability Action and is president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, which will hold an event honoring eviction struggles April 25 in the I-Hotel Manilatown Center, 868 Kearny St.