|Opinion: Emil Amok|
For this, they pay $2,400 a monthnot to a landlord, but to the bank. Jason and Ming Luk, you see, are the landlords. In 1997, they bought the Noe Valley building that holds their dry-cleaning business with the intent of converting the two upstairs units into one single-family flat for their family. Their real-estate agent, they say, told them it would be no problem.
But there were problems. And after confronting the citys labrynthine rental code, the Luks, who speak limited English, decided their best bet for getting the other upstairs unit would be to evict all their tenantsboth those in the upstairs unit and those in a downstairs onethrough the Ellis Act.
A series of ever-tightening restrictions on owner-move in evictions have forced more landlords than ever in San Francisco to turn to the state law, which allows landlords to take their buildings off the market. Invoking Ellis nearly always worked, until March, when the city moved to curb such evictions by requiring that landlords get the permission of the Planning Commission before moving in. Pro-landlord groups then sued the city.
Developments in the fight are usually reported as clashes between titan politicos on both sides. But insider politicking doesnt matter much to the Luks, nor to their tenants, Wilfredo and Carmen Mendoza and Marta Mendoza (not related to the couple).
What matters to the Luks is getting more space for their sons to grow up in, and what matters to the two Mendoza households is the fact that they have little hope of staying in Noe Valley for the $244 and $300 theyre paying now.
While we empathize with the tenants plight, which we detailed in last weeks cover story, there is nothing in U.S. law or the American tradition that says that if people rent a place for a long time and are good tenants, they will be guaranteed the right to live there forever. Thats one reason people buy homes and take on all the risks and responsibilities involved.
Many longtime San Franciscans are unfortunately unable to live in the neighborhoods where they grew up. Many people have friends, family and roots in the city, but the homes they can afford are in Oakland or the Central Valley or the Midwest. It would be sad to see the two Mendoza families join their ranks, and almost instinctively, many would argue that it wouldnt be right.
But would it be more right to force the Luks to keep housing them? While both tenant families have lived there for decades, to argue that they should be allowed to stay only because they have been there for a long time implies that squatting rights are greater than the right to live in the home one paid for. And although we wouldnt doubt that both families are as nice as their supporters describe, we do question the argument that good personhood supersedes the right to ownership. If that were so, shouldnt all of us who are nicer than Bill Gates be entitled to a house like his?
Less facetiously, do the tenants have the right not only to keep the Luks out of most of their home, but also to force them to subsidize both of their households? After all, the Luks pay $2,400 per month, but get back only $300 and $244 from tenants who each consume twice as much space. And from all appearances, the Luks are not rolling in dough. They are Chinese immigrants who run a dry-cleaning business.
So is it right that the Luks must shell out $200 per hour for their lawyers while the tenants get theirs for free through the government-subsidized Tenderloin Housing Clinic? Most likely, that is what faces the Luks for months to come. On Monday, Superior Court Judge Dorothy Von Beroldingen effectively overturned the jury verdict that last month vindicated the Luks. And now, the two tenant families are reportedly planning new lawsuits over their living conditions, even though at least one household had never complained in 30 years.
Though the fight has undoubtedly angered the tenants, is it right for them and their lawyers to paint the Luks as diabolical landlords? They are not that. The Luks are a family deprived of their piece of the American Dreama home they still toil to pay for, even though they cannot enjoy it.
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