SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) — A ruling issued on Wednesday in a legal fight over an attempt to evict a 99-year-old woman from her apartment in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood gives her the right to stay, but she could still lose her home if she cannot pay attorney’s fees totaling more than $100,000.
Superior Court Judge James Patterson ruled that Iris Canada could remain in her apartment at 670 Page St., where she has lived since the 1950s and holds a lifetime estate.
However, the ruling also requires that she pay the property owners’ legal fees and sets strict limits on her occupation, prohibiting her from allowing caregivers or family members to live with her and requiring her to contact the property owners if she is absent for more than 14 days at a time.
Canada’s family members and housing advocates indicated Canada was unlikely to be able to pay the attorney’s fees, and her niece Iris Merriouns said she remains vulnerable to harassment and eviction under the terms of the ruling.
The property owners, Peter Owens, Stephen Owens and Carolyne Radishe, moved to evict her in 2014, alleging that she has been living with family members since 2012 and has neglected the apartment for so long that utilities were shut off and it became uninhabitable.
Canada has denied the allegations, however, saying she was hospitalized due to a stroke and has traveled with family, but never gave up occupancy of the apartment.
Attorneys for the property owners have offered to waive the legal fees, but there is a catch: they want Canada to sign papers that would allow the building to convert to condominiums.
Attorney Andrew Zacks said the desire to take the building condo underlies the entire dispute over Canada’s tenancy. Canada was granted a lifetime estate in 2005 following a failed attempt to evict her under the Ellis Act, meaning that she is allowed to remain in her unit for the rest of her life in return for rent of $700 a month.
The other five units in the building are now tenancies-in-common and are waiting to convert to condominiums. But Canada’s lifetime estate means that her signature is required before the conversion can proceed,
according to Zacks.
Zacks blamed family members for Canada’s refusal to sign the papers, alleging that they hoped to gain personally from her claim on the unit.
“What we have here is exploitation of Ms. Canada by her family members,” Zacks said.
Merriouns Wednesday rejected the allegation, saying the family is not trying to profit from the apartment, but is concerned that signing the condo conversion paperwork could leave Canada liable for the cost of repairs and maintenance to the building.
She accused the property owners and the other tenants of harassing Canada, saying they have set up surveillance cameras to track her movements, broken into her apartment and removed paperwork, and changed the locks. She and that he would not evict her, but nevertheless has spent the past two years seeking to do just that.
“Why should we trust someone who says one thing publicly but does another thing behind closed doors?” Merriouns said. “If Peter Owens is a man of his word then he will drop the $100,000,” she said, referring to the attorney’s fees.
Canada’s case gained widespread media attention earlier this month after the Housing Rights Committee and Board of Supervisors President London Breed rallied to her cause. Among other things, the publicity has caused Peter Owens to step down from his position as director of housing policies in Burlington, Vermont.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, said the case was emblematic of the gentrification taking place across the city.
“It’s an African American neighborhood, white folks with money are moving in and they’re gentrifying, they’re pushing out African Americans, and she’s holding out,” Mecca said. “Good for her.”
“The reality is, this is what’s happening to our whole city, this is the story of San Francisco in one case,” Mecca said.