'Where are we going to go?' Mom, autistic son face eviction
San Jose Mercury News - 6/19/2018
June 19--(Click here, if you are unable to view this photo gallery on your mobile device.)
SAN FRANCISCO -- For 13 years, the homey, plant-filled apartment on the edge of the city has been a rent-controlled haven for Serena Chietti and her autistic son, Marco Mondini.
The walls and bookshelves are filled with photos of Marco as a baby and as a smiling, strawberry-blonde middle-schooler. From the living room windows, you can see all the way to the ocean. "You can see whales sometimes," Chietti said, gazing out at the water.
Chietti may soon have to say goodbye to that view and the home where her son, now 14, grew up. Like many other long-time Bay Area renters who pay below-market rates for desirable properties, she's facing a looming eviction.
Chietti's landlord says she's been a problem tenant for years and has sparked multiple complaints from neighbors. But Chietti's lawyer suspects her eviction is at least partly motivated by money. If she moves out, her landlord can raise the rent on the two-bedroom, Outer Richmond apartment from the $1,834 Chietti pays now to the market rate of more than $3,000 a month.
The Bay Area's red-hot rental market, tenant advocates say, has created an incentive for landlords to remove long-term tenants from rent-controlled units and replace them with renters who will pay more. Against this backdrop, thousands of local tenants are hit with eviction lawsuits each year.
"It's bad," said San Francisco-based attorney Jason Wolford, who represents Chietti. "It seems like anyone who doesn't make a tech worker's salary is getting encouraged, for lack of a better term, to leave -- either with buyout propositions or eviction threats or actual evictions. It seems rare for a person who's been in a rent-controlled unit for more than 10 years to really be unscathed."
Between 2014 and 2016, San Francisco County landlords filed 9,826 unlawful detainer lawsuits -- the legal precursor to an eviction. (Landlords first serve a tenant with an eviction notice, and if the tenant refuses to move out, the landlord follows up in court with an unlawful detainer complaint. The case then may go to trial, and if the landlord wins, law enforcement could be called to remove the tenant). In Santa Clara County during that time, there were 10,546 filings, and in Alameda County there were 16,401, according to a May report by tenants rights group Tenants Together. The report, which does not reveal how many of those filings resulted in tenants moving out, is the first to accurately track California unlawful detainer filings county-by-county.
In several Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, rent-control rules protect certain long-term tenants from large rent hikes. But those rules reset once the tenant moves out, and landlords can charge the next tenant the market-rate rent. In those cities and a handful of others, landlords generally can't evict a tenant unless they have "just cause" -- such as a tenant creating a nuisance or failing to pay rent -- or the owner is taking the unit off the rental market. In November, California voters will decide whether cities should be allowed to impose even stricter renter protections.
Despite existing protections, lawyers who represent tenants say their clients are getting evicted over infractions that, in a calmer housing market, likely would be forgiven. In cities without "just cause" ordinances, renters are getting evicted for no reason, the lawyers say. In San Mateo County, for example 395 "no-cause" eviction cases were reported between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015 -- the most recent numbers available -- compared to 437 cases stemming from a failure to pay rent, according to a report by the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
Santa Clara-based attorney Todd Rothbard, who represents landlords in rental disputes, said most eviction cases are filed as a last resort.
"They're not going willy-nilly trying to evict decent tenants," Rothbard said, noting that landlords' income depends on regular rent payments. "They do want to evict the bad actors that make life miserable for the good tenants."
Thanks to San Francisco's rent control ordinance, Chietti's rent has gone up only about $200 in 13 years. If her rent hadn't been kept artificially low, Chietti, who said she makes about $2,700 a month working as a manager at a Salvation Army store and as a bookkeeper for her parents' wine-importing business and receives financial help from her ex-husband, would have been priced out long ago.
If Chietti loses her case, which is scheduled to go to trial June 25, she said she'll probably have to move into her parents' house in the Marina.
"It's terrible because living under these conditions is not comfortable either," she said. "But where are we going to go? This has been our home. And to find anything like this is impossible."
Chietti's landlord, Ralph Dayan, says Chietti and her son are a nuisance to the building, detailing the claims against her in a March unlawful detainer lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court. He says the mother and son's continual "stomping" on the floor prompted their downstairs neighbors to move out. Dayan claims Chietti has caused disturbances in the building while intoxicated -- a complaint two neighbors also raised in interviews with this news organization. And Dayan complained about Marco's throwing glass bottles from the window of their apartment.
"This is a situation where they got a lot of complaints, and the landlord decided to put his foot down," said Dayan's lawyer, Burlingame-based Edward Singer. He denied that Dayan, who he said does not "evict people lightly," is trying to kick Chietti out so he can raise the rent.
Chietti is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings now, she said, and the two neighbors who complained about her coming home intoxicated told this news organization there have been no recent problems. Chietti also admitted that Marco went through a phase where he liked throwing glass bottles of condiments out of the window to hear them break. But she said they dealt with that issue in therapy, and the behavior stopped.
Marco is protected by state and federal laws shielding people with disabilities from housing discrimination, said Wolford, Chietti's attorney. The landlord must attempt to make "reasonable accommodations" for Marco, which he has not done, Wolford said.
Chietti said other claims in the lawsuit are exaggerated or made-up -- such as an accusation that she banged on her upstairs neighbors' door at 4 a.m. earlier this year. Ivy Creed, the neighbor who lives in that apartment, confirmed that never happened.
If she loses her fight, Chietti is most worried about Marco, who divides his time between Chietti, her ex-husband and her parents. Marco, who loves fishing and can identify every Beatles song within the first few notes, doesn't handle change well -- which is common for children with autism. He wears the same outfit every day, a Beatles shirt, black pants and black Skechers.
No matter how much Chietti tries to reassure Marco that he'll always have a place to live, he's started to shoulder some of her worries.
"He's thinking it's going to happen," Chietti said, "and he's going to come here and all his stuff's going to be gone."
(c)2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.