North Beach tenants find strength and friendship as they fight to keep their homes

Sep 10, 2014

Theresa Flanderich (r) and Diego Deleo (l) in Deleo's apartment.
Credit Melanie Young

At the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, two dozen residents of North Beach come on a recent Tuesday night to hear from neighbors who have experienced evictions.  

The state’s Ellis Act allows landlords to withdraw from the rental market and evict their tenants.  North Beach has one of the City’s highest Ellis eviction rates.  

Marla Knight, a longtime North Beach resident and co-founder of the North Beach tenants committee welcomed everyone and let them know they were not alone in their concerns about evictions.  

“In 2012, 2013 there were 21 of us on our block that were being evicted from our homes.  So naturally we banded together as a support group but we also wanted to reach out to our neighbors,” she says to those who gathered.

That original group of 21 nicknamed themselves the Lombard 21, after their street. The group has grown as they’ve connected with other worried North Beach residents. 

A recent meeting is filled with neighbors who had housing stories to share.

Judith Roden says she’s lived in the area for ten years.  She’s concerned because her building seemed to stop renting to long-term tenants.  

“I live in a 23 unit building. As tenants move out, the apartments are being renovated, furnished, and being rented as corporate rentals,” Roden tells the crowd.  

Meanwhile Thina Holman says she is in the midst of being evicted.

“I’m supposed to be leaving in December,” says Holman. “I’ve been in my place 26 years. To me it’s a justice issue and that’s why I’m fighting this.”

Mark Bruno’s building looks like it’s about to be sold and he’s living with uncertainty about his housing.  

“So we’re a group of six who are not actually being evicted but could face eviction,” he says.

One of the co-founders of the North Beach Tenants Committee is Theresa Flanderich, a retired nurse. She has vivid memories of her eviction.  The doorbell rang at 7:00 am on a Saturday, she says.  

Her adult son opened the door of their apartment and was served an eviction notice.

She says she couldn’t believe it and was in shock.  

“I ran into an older neighbor and I said ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it Barbara, I just got an eviction notice.’ I started sobbing. So, that was day one,” she says

Flanderich is a petite woman - with boundless energy. Once the eviction notice had sunk in, she says there were too many memories, too many ties to the community, and too much anger over the eviction to simply leave.

Around the same time, a few blocks away, Diego Deleo was going through the same thing. He explains his reaction to being evicted.

“My life is here. Friends is here. My wife’s spirit is here.  My soul is here. That’s why I feel I must do the best to stay here,” he says.

Deleo lived in North Beach for 40 years with his wife.  He says he fell in love with her smile the first time they met. The couple married at nearby Sts. Peter and Paul Church. The church’s bells rang out for them then, throughout their daily lives, and again for her funeral 3 years ago. Since her death he’s slowly adjusted to life on his own.  

But the eviction notice the 80-year-old got last year weighs on him constantly.

“You can’t avoid thinking about it. I eat, I think about it.  I walk, I think about it.  I go to bed I think about it. The next step, I don’t know I really don’t know,” he says.

A friend who worked with the elderly in North Beach introduced Deleo and Flanderich.

Flanderich says they connected very quickly.

“We sat down and talked. I told him what was going on.  He was very, very sad. And I said “You know, it’ll be okay. You know Diego, you are not alone,” she remembers.

Deleo adds with a smile “And now we friends, we friends now.  That’s good yes.”

That was 10 months ago, now they are together regularly.  Today they’re in Deleo’s apartment. Like the man himself, the 2 bedroom apartment is modest but has old world warmth and charm.  Flanderich and Deleo sit side by side at his dining table, talking strategy for his eviction case.  Their chairs creak gently as they chat and study his documents.

Deleo cuts a fine figure now with carefully groomed silver hair and a beard, but Flanderich is taken by an old photo of him as a young man in a suit.  The two soon dissolve into laughter as Deleo jokes about his photo.

“This was  when I was young,” he laughs. “They call me the Italian stallion. [Now] no more!”

Although they’ve known each other for only a year, they’ve already seen growth in one another. The two attended a protest at the San Francisco Board of Realtors in April.

Flanderich recalls seeing a change come over her friend at the protest.  “So Diego spoke. Oh my gosh, the power when he spoke! That was the first time there was strength in this man’s face since I first met him. And since that day, that is now part of your face, that strength. Deleo smiles and says “I didn’t know I had that.”

Deleo has found another way to voice his thoughts to others. Depressed after his wife passed, Deleo says his doctor ordered him to find something to do.

“Now, I discovered new love, since my wife died. I discovered poetry.   Some intellectual development.  Emotional development, keeps me going. Thank god I find this poetry thing.  I tell the truth, I call them my children.”

Deleo says the sadness he feels about his eviction helps fuel his creativity. And poetry has helped him connect to a wider community. His poems grace the walls of North Beach restaurants. He has been invited to give readings around the city, and in his home.  

But can Deleo and Flanderich’s friendship survive if the evictions mean one or both of them must leave North Beach or San Francisco altogether?

“I know I will always be friends with Diego,” Flanderich says without hesitation.

Deleo agrees. “Obviously the friendship is good. No matter what we will still be friends.   Any problem I will still write the poetry. You gotta have something positive.  You have to otherwise you might as well stay home and die,” he says. “Stay in bed and don’t get up.”

It’s hard to imagine them doing that.  In fact, just a few days later, Flanderich and Deleo head for a walk to North Beach’s Washington Square.

Flanderich has something to celebrate.

“My great news is my Ellis act has been dismissed.  So that means I can stay,” she says.

The courts dismissed her eviction on procedural grounds.  Her landlord could refile an Ellis Act petition but would have to give Flanderich one year’s notice.

As she and Deleo go for a walk to Washington Square she runs into another friend and shares her good news.

He cheers her on. “Alright! One for the little guys!   Not many of that happens. Congratulations! Congratulations!”

When they reach Washington Square they spot Marla Knight among the crowds gathered for lunch.

Knight chaired the big North Beach Tenants Committee meeting the other evening. Like Flanderich, Knight’s eviction was also withdrawn.  She believes coming together with her neighbors to fight helped turn things around. In the process she says she created a whole new life in the City.   

“I get to stay in the City I love.  I’ve become very active with the NB tenants committee. So I am more deeply rooted in the neighborhood than I’ve ever been.”

As Knight and Flanderich laugh and chat, the bells of Saints Peter and Paul Church across the square ring out. Flanderich sits up and beams.

“There it is. The bells!,” she smiles. “The church bells. I get to hear them go on and on. The bell ringing has been a huge part of my life the past 31 years here. For the past 16 months since I had received the Ellis Act notice. Each time I heard the bells, I would feel really sad. And say to myself, I’m going to miss this so much. And now, I get to keep hearing this. Now it’s joy.”

Joy because she can remain close by her friends. But plenty of other eviction cases are still in the courts.

Including Deleo’s. Whether he can stay in his home of 40 years remains to be seen.  

In the meantime, he keeps busy planning a one man poetry reading for November and working with the North Beach Tenants committee.

He reflects on the changes in his life.

“I’m an introvert. I’m not an extrovert individual to go out there and speak.  But now I don’t know where I get all this security and enthusiasm to do it.  Now I look forward to do it. It’s like a fire, a small fire that gradually increases.  And now I’m in another stratosphere.”

Through it all, he’ll be surrounded by friends, old and new.  Those same friends who are working so hard to hold their community together. 

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