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March 26, 2015

More SF Mid-Market artists are fighting eviction

The San Francisco Examiner

Chris Roberts

Property agents and at least one prospective renter wanted to take a look Thursday at the newly renovated office space at 1061 Market St, an open floor plan perfect for tech firms.

But first, they had to squeeze through a crowd of artists - filmmakers, musicians, dancers, and painters - gathered outside the front door.

Some of the artists are former occupants of the now Market Street office space, evicted from what had been a live-work area until last year.

The other artists, who live in a similar live-work space one floor above, received their eviction notices earlier this month, the latest episode in what's become a running saga of artists and nonprofits displaced from a rapidly changing Mid-Market.

Artists, nearly all of whom are associated with the nearby San Francisco Art Institute, first took up residence in the space, back when it was a sewing shop in 2011.

The building's zoned commercial. But tenant improvements on two floors, conducted with the landlord's knowledge, allowed about 45 artists to occupy loftlike spaces of between 200 and 700 square feet in size for as little as $2 a square foot, said resident Kim Bender.

Everything was fine between the artists and property owner T.T. Group of San Jose "until the tech boom," Bender said.

Demand for office space is at an all-time high. Residents of about 20 loft spaces on the second floor received eviction notices from T.T. Group last summer. That space, 7,500 square feet, is now being advertised for rent on Craigslist and via commercial real estate firm Kidder Mathews. There are another 15 units on the third floor, about half of which received 30-day notices in March.

Since the units are technically illegal (the building is listed as offices in city zoning documents), tenant protections like rent control and eviction protections may not apply. The tenants have appealed their situation to the Rent Board, which could issue a ruling on their residency status in April.

Jennifer Chen, a business agent for T.T. Group, and attorney Curtis F. Dowling, who sent the eviction notices, didn't return calls.

The remaining artists said they've hired an attorney and are prepared to dig in. They're one of several tenant groups on the Mid-Market corridor fighting to stay in the area.

Housing advocates say evictions like the ones at 1061 Market St. and other live-work spaces nearby - including 1049 Market St., where several dozen tenants have been fighting an eviction since fall 2013 - are a direct result of the Twitter tax break, a payroll-tax exclusion offered to technology companies who relocate to the area.

"This is exactly what we said would happen," said Tommi Avicolli-Mecca, an organizer with the Housing Rights Committee. "And it's happening." An improving neighborhood coming at the cost of displaced residents forces Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Jane Kim to walk a fine line. Both supported the tax break, and are now working on ways to keep artists, nonprofits, and other less-wealthy residents in their homes to please their pro-tenant voter base.

Kim's sponsored legislation that would require landlords to get Planning Department approval before removing tenants from commercial space, even if the space is used as housing illegally.

"Keeping tenants in their homes" is a priority, Kim said. "The idea that people who landlords profited off of in a bad economy can be kicked out of their homes in a good economy demonstrates a level of greed that we don't support at City Hall."

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