Priced Out: S.F. Artist Turned Housing Activist Describes His Ellis Act Eviction

By Austin Meyer Peninsula Press

San Francisco resident Benito Santiago, 63, is one of an increasing number of San Francisco seniors who are facing rising rents and eviction. (Austin Meyer/Peninsula Press)
San Francisco resident Benito Santiago, 63, is one of an increasing number of San Francisco seniors who are facing rising rents and eviction. (Austin Meyer/Peninsula Press)

San Francisco resident Benito Santiago, 63, lived in his Mission District apartment 37 years before getting his Ellis Act eviction notice in November 2013. Santiago is one of an increasing number of San Francisco seniors who are facing rising rents and eviction.

Santiago — a ballroom-dance instructor and teacher for special needs children in the San Francisco Unified School District — is energetic yet frail. He walks with a cane and wears an array of colored cowboy hats.

For nearly four decades, Santiago has called his apartment on Duboce Avenue home. Today, each room is a time capsule. Drums and percussion instruments line the floors. Dance instruction books paint the shelves. In one room, a sleeping pad and tarp make up his bed, an image that calls back memories of Santiago’s homeless days before getting his apartment.

“I have a lot of history here,” said Santiago. “I’ve gone from a starving artist hustling for dance students to having a real job.”

 

For years, Santiago held many odd jobs around San Francisco, making just enough money to cover the monthly rent of $575.

“Being in this space has allowed me to focus on my art without having to worry about survival,” said Santiago. “As long as I have my apartment over my head, I can give more to the community.”

Around Thanksgiving 2013, Benito arrived home to a notice on his door. He was being evicted via the Ellis Act — a state law designed to allow a property owner to leave the rental business, thereby vacating rental units. However, the Ellis Act is being abused. Groups of investors are buying property as landlords seek retirement or pass away, and they are evicting tenants by using the Ellis Act. Speculators buy property, hoping to flip the apartments into an easy profit.

Suddenly, the prospect of not having a roof over Santiago’s head was all too real.

“They wanted me out so they could turn the building into condominiums,” said Santiago. “I didn’t know what to do. I had sleepless nights.”

Santiago was offered a $20,000 buyout and was told to be out in one month. He started giving away tables and chairs, slowly offloading what he could. Even with the $20,000, he would be able to afford living in his apartment only for five months.

“When I found out that the going rate for this apartment was $4,000 a month, and not $575 like what I am paying,” laughed Santiago. “I mean, how am I going to afford that?”

Santiago reconsidered the offer and, along with other tenants in his building, began to fight the eviction. He filed appeals as a senior citizen on disability. He went on protests and fought for tenants rights.

“I’m going to stand my ground and see if I can make a difference,” said Santiago. “I’m going to speak up for myself and speak up for the seniors, the disabled, the educators, the students and the families who give to the community and then are being displaced.”

As of July 1, Santiago continues that fight as he remains in his apartment. His Ellis Act eviction appeals are pending, and the next chapter of his life with his apartment is unwritten.

  • richensf

    Stand your ground and make a difference, but before you do: please educate yourself on the economic forces and regulatory factors that affect the cost of housing in this region–yes this region, not just this city. The cost of housing in this city is tied to the cost of housing in the region. You cannot change one without first changing the other. Understand that the law of supply and demand are at play here and that you only have the power to change the supply side of the equation. Understand what considerations have to be taken into account for any developer to step in to increase the supply. Know the marketplace and the nuance of its economics. Don’t just go to the art store to buy markers and poster paper to picket on the street corner like an emotional robot. Those people have no credibility and no impact. Stand your ground and make a difference, but before you do: please educate yourself.

    • Sick-o-yahoos

      ^^^dude, this guy is losing his home and facing homelessness, again. You do those things, he is exactly who should fight. Yes, let’s pity the developers, it’s so hard having money, wah wah wah, stop crying, you’re getting grown folks wet.

      • richensf

        That’s great and all but none of that means anything with respect to achieving results. This is a complex issue, more complex than any of the protestors or populists give it credit for, which is why neither of them are able to make a difference. I am encouraging this guy to make a difference by not becoming the same type of populist demagogue. I have already done “those things”, I have spent hundreds of hours digging into the issue and I know the depth and complexity of it very well. I encourage you to do the same. There is a list of links at the bottom of this story that is a good place to start: https://medium.com/@richensf/antagonizing-the-tech-worker-6788daa20942

      • Kevin Smith

        Wah wah.., It’s so hard to move…. yet most people move 12 or more times in their lives…..

        • BriGuy

          Exactly! I dont understand why people feel entitled to $545/month rent, when the market value is over $3000/month. I dont remember the last time I paid $500/month. Probably about 20 years ago, while living in downtown Cincinnati.

          • Deborah Goodspeed-Santiago

            not an entitlement… SF is so greedy and all of you complaining about what he’s going through would never understand… bet you most of the people who think he’s a taker are from other states and are taking over the city that our parents worked to build… get over yourself!

        • Deborah Goodspeed-Santiago

          then you move there loser!!! you would never understand the plight~ just count your blessings… you’ll remember this story one day you can bet on it!!

    • Haw Haw

      Being educated means identifying nonsense and drivel.

  • T.J. Diggs

    I know a few people who are being “Ellised”. Most of them long term city residents and contributing members to their community. The city is becoming unaffordable for teachers, secretaries, salespeople, barristas, janitors, and all the other kinds of middle to lower middle class people. How can a city function without it’s service class? When all those people move and find jobs in the East Bay (or further) – what will San Francisco become?

    • Guest

      To be fair, I know young people without skills who have found lucky situations around the city (their parents live here or lucked out with an apt) but they cannot find low skill jobs. They have been without work for months. The market is saturated. So I’m not sure there is a strong danger of losing the “service” class.

    • t4cgirl

      You do realize the “service class” isn’t actually dying, right? People paying less than one-fifth of market rate rent are paid to move to the next neighborhood over, not the next country. People all over this country commute an hour to their jobs, from Google programmers to the baristas at Ritual. Breathe.

  • Haw Haw

    Let SF become the urine-stained, fecal tourist trap the rich want it to be.

  • jackson

    Ex-Giants catcher benito santiago…

  • Grow up

    Live life with no regrets. All these long term tenants are regretting that they spent all these years living the easy life with the belief that their landlord will subsidize their lifestyle until the end. Whose fault is it for their situation but their own? They now need to come to terms with the reality of being an adult with the responsibility of taking care of themselves.

    • Deborah Goodspeed-Santiago

      you should be ashamed of yourself! of course your silver spoon is tarnished! ’nuff said!!

  • Guest

    Whoahhh, he’s paying $575 a month in rent? And he thinks he gives to the community? By playing the bongo?

    Benito, you seem like a nice soft spoken guy. But when you started speaking about your dignity and self respect, you lost me. Your landlord seems to be the more moral guy for supporting you for 30+ years. This video blew my mind!

  • Kevin Smith

    The only way to stay in SF ( without being in Tech ) is to become a real estate speculator ! Any idiot can do it ( I did and now have 5 million dollars in assets ). “We are all self made, but only the sucsessful will admit it” … Earl Nightingale.

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