From AIDS to housing crises, they’ve seen it all: Castro’s long-time residents fight to stay
Jeremy Mykaels is in his early 60s, and he has AIDS. As a young gay man, he moved to the Castro, where he has lived for almost 40 years. He's been in his Victorian apartment on Noe Street for about half of that time -- but he may not be living here much longer.
Mykaels is the last tenant still living at 460 Noe. The tenants in the other two units left around the time the new owners bought the building two years ago. But because Mykaels wouldn’t leave, the new landlords have tried to evict him with the Ellis Act, a state law designed to protect property owners who want to take their rental units off the market. The law is a controversial one, and according to some people -- including Mykaels -- landlords are actually misusing the law to make a profit. KALW reached out to the building’s owners, but could only make contact with one; he declined to comment.
In protest, Mykaels put up posters that cover most of the windows of his second story unit. The signs read: “Boycott this property. Do not buy properties where seniors or disabled tenants have been evicted for profit by uncaring real estate speculators using and abusing the Ellis Act.”
When Mykaels writes, “using and abusing the Ellis Act,” he is arguing that his landlords are not using the law as it was intended. Instead of trying to take the property off the market, he says, they’re planning to merge the units and resell for a profit.
Mykaels believes the people getting hurt by the law are, like him, some of the city’s most vulnerable.
“The city [is] losing a lot of its heart, a lot of its soul, for being able to care for its vulnerable seniors and disabled people,” he says. “Or even just the middle class here.”
FOUND AND LOST
Brian Basinger, Director of the AIDS Housing Alliance, works for people like Mykaels.
“For me, it's a spirit that is getting destroyed,” Basinger says. “I moved here to the San Francisco that was so open and everybody’s door was open … It’s being replaced by a meanness and a greed.”
Basinger is gay, and he also has AIDS. He says his own experience of getting evicted in the early 2000s led him to his life’s work.
“I was the thirteenth disabled gay man with AIDS Ellis Act-evicted from my block in two years,” he says. “When all of this was happening to me … it seemed like the city was on fire, and everybody I knew was in trouble. And I actually got a legal pad out and I wrote the name of every person with AIDS that I knew. And then next to them, I wrote down what their housing situation was. And I did not know one single person in this city with AIDS who had stable housing.”
To understand what Basinger is fighting for, it is important to understand what he has lost.
“I never really in my entire life ever felt like I had a home,” he says.
Basinger is originally from Missouri. Because he is gay, his stepfather was scared AIDS would enter into their home. When he was 15, Basinger was kicked out.
He started a new life in San Francisco. He lived at 67 Pearl, between Market and Duboce. The street was one block long, and had a little alley called Pink. They called their home “Pink and Pearl”.
“We had the kind of block where we would all sit on the stoops all weekend, and we would just saunter up and down the block and visit!” Basinger says. “We all knew each other ... It was so incredible, and our place was the center. Everyone gathered there. Everyone would compare it to ‘Tales of the City’, and they said I was Anna Madrigal … Even in the midst of all of that crisis, the beauty that existed there was just special.”
Basinger’s community was a key support system in the midst of the AIDS crisis. “I lived in a building where 30 gay men came to die with AIDS and we all took care of them,” he says. “And it was every three months, somebody in the building was dying, and many of the people would get cremated, and they were buried in the backyard. And so this was also such a profound experience for me personally.”
Basinger says it was in his will: “I was supposed to die, and be buried in the backyard with everybody else. And that’s how the circle was going to get completed. And that was my picture of my life.“
What happened to him isn't just a personal loss-- it is symbolic of what is happening to the Castro and his community, he says. That is why he started the AIDS Housing Alliance, to help people like him stay in the city. Besides community, there’s also access to high-quality AIDS healthcare. But once they’re evicted – sometimes from rent-controlled apartments – many can’t afford to stay.
Basinger himself is currently looking for a place. He says he doesn’t make enough money to qualify for the majority of affordable housing in San Francisco. “I’m one of the city’s experts on getting people into affordable housing, and I can’t even get myself into it.”
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
Jeremy Mykaels is part of a federally protected group. He is a senior with a disability, so he gets a little longer after an Ellis Act Eviction notice to move out – a full year. Since he was notified in September 2012, he has been in a legal battle with his landlords. He has managed to stay in his apartment, though he doesn’t know how much longer he can. Mykaels says if he is going to go out, he is going to go out big.
“I told them I’d fight in any way I could,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Mykaels has set up a website and teamed up with local tenants’ rights group Eviction Free San Francisco. He’s shown up at hearings and staged protests. He even made his own version of the song “San Francisco.”
“[Castro] doesn’t seem to be the primo gay neighborhood anymore,” Mykaels says. “And not that a mix of people -- that's not a bad thing. I miss the intensity, I guess. Every political stand on behalf of gay rights, it started here. We’d all meet at what is now Milk Plaza and march from there – that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Mykaels wrote his own version of the classic song “San Francisco,” which he sang at a recent protest. “San Francisco,” he sings. “Please don’t abandon me / you’ve always been fair, you see / and I’ve paid my dues.” He continues: “San Francisco / now that I’m turning gray / please don’t take my home away, too.”
It is part protest, part love song: San Francisco is the city Mykaels always dreamed of, but the one he never dreamed he would have to leave.