Alma Sierra has been living in her home at 490 Athens for three years. Sierra, her nine year old son, and two other mothers with their children share a rental unit. They have diligently paid their rent, and her son goes to school across the street. But last year, US Bank foreclosed on the small-time landlords that owned the property- now, the tenants face eviction.
“We’re three single mothers with children. We don’t have the means to just up and leave,” Sierra, a part-time domestic worker, told me through a translator from Causa Justa, an organization that works for tenants’ rights.
Their work helped pass the Just Cause eviction policy for which the organization is named last year.
Under city law, a landlord needs one of 14 reasons to justly evict a tenant. The reasons include failure to pay rent and trashing the property, as well as owner move-in and Ellis Act  evictions.
But the foreclosure crisis has brought on a wave of bank-owned properties. These are tricky situations legally; banks generally want to sell the property, a task made more difficult if there are pesky tenants living there.
“The banks want to get rid of the tenants. The realtors for the banks always tell them they can get more money if there aren’t any tenants in it. Because that way they would have to do an owner move-in eviction,” said Tommi Mecca, a long-time tenants’ rights advocate in the city.
According to Mecca, US Bank has been pressuring the three families to leave the building, although no eviction papers have been filed yet. The Guardian is awaiting calls back from US Bank representatives.
In fact, it was only recently that the tenants even learned about the change of ownership, and contacted Causa Justa to ask for assistance.
The San Francisco Housing Rights Committee (SFHRC) got involved, as well- and discovered that the foreclosure had likely taken place in March of 2011.
“We got no notice about it,” said Sierra.
She added that she and the other tenants had continued to pay their rent to the former landlords for almost a year-- even after the landlords no longer owned the property.
“It can take many months, in some cases longer, to actually sell property,” said Sarah Shortt, an organizer with the SFHRC.
“So in the meantime the bank is the landlord and they haven’t been responsible in lending or as landlords. They tend to disregard tenants’ rights and trample over the needs and concerns of renters.”
Even when tenants are made aware that the property they live in has been sold back to bank, it can often be difficult to determine who to turn to for repairs, complaints, or even the right address for rent checks.
“One of the things we see a lot of is, the bank acquires the property and then they’re just MIA. Tenants come to us and say, we don’t know who owns our building, where to pay rent, who to ask to fix leaky ceiling. We help them research to find who owner is,” said Shortt.
These situations often end with buy-outs, in which the bank pays the tenants to leave the property. The amount ranges, but according to Mecca, it can often be insubstantial.
“They start at $1,000, $3,000, something really insulting. And it’s only if tenants walk in somewhere like [the SFHRC] that we tell them, wait a minute, your tenancy is worth so much more than that.”
As for Sierra and her roommates, they are determined not to leave.
“We don’t want to leave,” said Sierra. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
At a press conference in front of a branch of US Bank on 16th and Mission today, more than 40 supporters came out to support the tenants in their attempts to stay in their home. In compliance with police, they left an aisle for pedestrians and blocked neither the sidewalk nor the street, and made efforts to allow customers room to enter and exit the bank. The manager opted to lock the doors anyway.
Once the door had been locked, some of the children who live in the unit taped letters they had hoped to deliver inside to the doors. One letter reads in part, “We have nowhere to go. None of our families can afford to move. And we shouldn’t have to. As tenants, we have rights in San Francisco.”
The letters cites a recent report  which states that 2.3 million children in the United States have lost their homes to foreclosure that one in eight children in the United States has been affected by foreclosure (based on data for loans that were made between 2004 and 2008.)
And supporters plan to keep up the pressure on banks in these and other cases of foreclosure and eviction- there’s hardly a lull before an “occupy the auctions dance party ” planned for tomorrow.
For Shortt, the housing issue fits squarely into heightened protest activity launched by occupy protesters last fall.
“I think that’s one of the most important pieces of the occupy movement, starting to educate ourselves and each other about how ubiquitous the toll that’s been taken on cities, neighborhoods, communities by banking industry and one percent,” said Shortt.
“Any of these cases we talk about homeowners, renters, it’s the 99 percent we’re talking about, and tends to be the lower tier of the 99 percent, low income people are being disproportionately hit by this.”