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Tenants battle one of SF’s biggest landlords over Covid-related evictions: ‘I will be on the street’

Cedric Dugger walks through his apartment at 601 O’Farrell Street on Monday July 11, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. Dugger who was recently given a court date for eviction by Veritas, the building management company. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Cedric Dugger knew exactly how he would decorate his apartment on O’Farrell Street as soon as he moved in, and spent the next 13 years adorning it in a way that complemented the building’s art-deco style—filling the walls with vintage posters and shelves with stacks of art books and retro knick knacks. 

But the pandemic upended his financial stability, threatening his future at the flat he so lovingly curated. As Covid sent the economy into a tailspin, Dugger says he saw his savings dwindle. 

He says he incurred $8,000 in debt just to stay afloat, and that his health took a hit, too—forcing him to incur additional medical costs.

And now, days before his 70th birthday, he says Veritas Investments—the multi-billion-dollar property management company that presides over the 82-unit complex he calls home—gave him what he calls a cruel gift. 

“Their birthday present to me was a court date for eviction,” Dugger lamented. 

Though California offered rent relief for people who struggled to pay their landlords during the pandemic, Dugger—who has limited tech access—says he never found out about the program until after it expired. 

He’s hardly an outlier. And neither is Veritas: the problem extends well beyond any one landlord.

An outside view of a San Francisco apartment building owned by Veritas Investments.
Exterior of 601 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco on Monday July 11, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Help Is Hard to Come By

Nearly 53% of California’s struggling tenants never applied for rent relief, according to a recent report by the Latino Politics and Policy Initiative at UCLA. Ultimately, the study showed, only 16% received aid. 

Yet lawmakers let the Emergency Rental Assistance Program launched on March 15, 2021, wind down this past spring, leaving Dugger and thousands of other low-income renters vulnerable to eviction. 

San Francisco enacted its own rent relief policies, but even those have failed to protect Dugger, he says.

Assembly Bill 2179 prevented landlords from ousting anyone with Covid hardships for unpaid rent due between April 2020 and the end of March this year—as long as the tenant applied for government rent relief in time and qualified. 

The legislation also overrode local rent protections passed by cities and counties after Aug. 1, 2020, which canceled out safeguards enacted by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in March. When AB 2179’s preemptions expired earlier this month, San Francisco’s March ordinance went into effect.

Under the now-active local policy, tenants cannot be evicted for not paying rent due since July 1 for as long as the city’s emergency declaration lasts. 

But there’s a gap in San Francisco’s protections for rent that came due from April through the end of June.

Advocates through the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco have been helping tenants navigate the complexities of rent relief programs. The committee has been doing so, in part, by supporting coalitions formed under the city’s Union-at-Home law—including the Veritas Tenants Association.

601 O’Farrell Street resident Cedric Dugger, left, is embraced by Lenea Maibaum of Housing Rights Committee, right, during a press event to show support for Duggar who was recently given an eviction notice by Vertias, the building management company. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The VTA, which counts members in more than 30 largely rent-controlled buildings, has been trying to negotiate with Veritas—widely considered the city’s largest landlord—for the better part of the past year. Dugger recently joined the effort by helping his neighbors form their own VTA affiliate.

With help from the city’s Housing Rights Committee, VTA has staged a five-month debt strike, in which about 50 households delayed their applications for state rent relief to prevent Veritas from getting reimbursed for a combined $5.7 million in past-due payments.

In doing so, the strikers have made themselves vulnerable to eviction. But even those who did not participate in the protest, like Dugger, are at risk of losing their homes.

Veritas responded to the protest by launching a “back-stop” program for residents who fail to find relief from the state, according to VTA member Maria Toriche, a former neighbor of Dugger’s and one of the tenants who joined the strike. 

Now, Toriche said, it’s time for Veritas to follow through on those commitments. 

“Eviction cannot happen,” she said. “Period.”

But it very well may—for Dugger and many like him, whether or not they took part in the strike.

House Rules

According to tenant organizers, Veritas has rejected demands by more than 1,200 renters for help recovering from Covid hardships. Organizers say the company has responded to tenant organizing by handing down new “House Rules,” as first reported by Mission Local

Meanwhile, the company has gone to court to pursue evictions against a number of tenants. Supervisor Dean Preston joined VTA members at a press conference outside Dugger’s home earlier this week to call attention to the unlawful detainer case filed by Veritas to start the eviction process in court, and to urge the company to work with tenants instead of trying to evict them and risk making long-term San Francisco residents homeless.

“We are going to do everything possible—and I mean everything—to make sure that you do not lose your home and to make sure that your birthday present for next week is housing stability,” Preston told Dugger at the Monday morning event. “Because you shouldn’t have to fight to stay in this city.”

Supervisor Dean Preston speaks to reporters outside of an apartment building in San Francisco.
Supervisor Dean Preston, right, speaks to the media and housing advocates during a press event to show support for long-time 601 O’Farrell Street resident Cedric Dugger, center, who was recently given a court date for eviction by Veritas, the building management company.. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Throughout the pandemic, Veritas has coined itself as a pioneer in rent relief. As for the issues brought up by VTA, Dugger and scores of his neighbors, Veritas dispute any claims of wrongdoing. 

In a statement to The Standard, Veritas Chief Operating Officer Jeff Jerden said he appreciates Preston reaching out directly to his company and that his staff is happy to work with Dugger and other tenants to resolve their unlawful detainer cases. 

Jerden called the press conference this week completely unnecessary, and said Dugger’s unlawful detainer court hearing on Tuesday was an attempt to reach a settlement with him—not to kick him out of his home. 

At Tuesday’s unlawful detainer hearing, Dugger and Veritas did not come to an agreement about how to settle up. The company agreed to postpone a trial for Dugger to get his paperwork together and apply for local rent relief through the city, which caps payouts at $7,500—only a portion of what he owes. 

“But at this time, Veritas is not granting a waiver of the remaining debt or an adjustment to his base rent,” Liz Gobbo of the Housing Rights Committee explained. “We will see if things change as we move further down the line.”

As Dugger’s birthday approaches, he says his poor health and looming eviction have made it feel like he’s aged 100 years in the past five. 

“If Veritas evicts me,” he said, “I will be on the street.”