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How renters work the system to live for free in one of America's most expensive cities 

Wednesday, Jul 30 2008
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In September, rental agent Lynne Hubbard sat in a cafe across from Dr. John Getzow, whom she was considering as a potential tenant for a room above O'Reilly's Holy Grail restaurant and bar on Polk Street. He was clean-cut and well dressed. He was a doctor, after all, and he seemed eager to find a place to live. But there was something faintly odd about him.

Getzow, 55, had arranged to meet Hubbard at the Crepe House on Polk. Once he sat down at the table, he told her about his technical consulting firm that helped hospitals with billing software. He went on to say he was active in city politics; he had worked on Mayor Gavin Newsom's campaign, and was currently involved in fund-raising for Senator Barack Obama's bid for the presidency.

At one point Getzow moved aside the coffee mugs on the small table and placed a leather-bound portfolio in front of Hubbard. He flipped through pages of references from former landlords, invoices addressed to hospitals for huge sums — even a letter of recommendation from Newsom's former campaign manager.

"I thought the portfolio presentation was a bit much for a room over O'Reilly's Holy Grail," Hubbard says. "He was trying too hard to impress me, but I wasn't sure why. I thought maybe it was because I'm female."

Considering Getzow's glowing credentials, Hubbard never would have guessed that when she accepted his application for the apartment in Myles O'Reilly's building, his tenancy would eventually cost the landlord thousands of dollars and climax in Getzow's arrest for assault.

As it turned out, Getzow was not a licensed doctor in California, although he did work sporadically as a medical software consultant. He also was not as integral to the political campaigns he had volunteered for. In fact, he was one of the most successful "serial evictees" in San Francisco, a select group of tenants who take advantage of the city's lenient courts and tenant-support nonprofits to tie up landlords in court for months while they live practically rent-free in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Depending on the vigilance of the landlord, a seasoned serial evictee like Getzow can get away with a minimum of 45 days and sometimes up to a year of free rent. The actual number of serial evictees operating in San Francisco is difficult to track, but some attorneys who specialize in representing landlords estimate there are between 20 and 100.

Landlord attorney Clifford Fried of Wiegel and Fried says these types of tenants know they're unlikely to be punished for withholding rent. "You can go into a store and steal a loaf of bread and do a year in jail," he says, "but you can steal months of rent from a landlord and never do any time in jail. It's a great crime to commit because there are no penalties."

Getzow has a string of evictions going back to 1992 in San Diego. He has also been evicted in Los Angeles and Walnut Creek. But it is in San Francisco where he has been most prolific: According to court records, he has been evicted from seven residences in the city since 2002. These don't include the landlords who didn't take legal action against him, such the owners of the Swiss House on O'Farrell, where Getzow lived rent-free for months before moving on, according to former owner Hans Selhorn.

Steven Williams of Wiegel and Fried represented a landlord who evicted Getzow in 2006. When the attorney recently saw Getzow during a break in yet another eviction proceeding, he recognized the man, but wasn't sure from where. "At first I thought he was an attorney I had worked with," Williams says. "It took me a while to remember who he was, but that's how he comes across, a smooth-talking gentleman in a nice blue blazer and khakis ... like a Harvard man."

But it takes more than a suit and a haircut to be a successful serial evictee. You have to be well versed in city and state rent laws in order to live rent-free, and Getzow apparently knows all the tricks, which he used on his new landlord O'Reilly last fall.

O'Reilly has a reputation for being a generous boss who goes out of his way to help employees and regular customers. In September, he was still new to being a landlord when Hubbard approved Getzow for a room, and saw no reason to be concerned. O'Reilly liked the idea of helping out a politically active doctor who might be a little down on his luck. He made his new tenant feel welcome, even giving him some free meals in the restaurant, according to Hubbard.

But some of O'Reilly's employees and other tenants wondered why a doctor would want to live above a restaurant and bar on Polk. It wasn't long before they all realized Getzow was going to be trouble, according to Brett Bennett, another tenant in the building. Getzow was quiet at first, but soon he was overly interested in making friends with the other tenants, says Bennett, who works as a registered nurse.

"He told me he was a doctor and that he could get me a job with a 'real company,'" Bennett says. "I'm a gay man, so I know a lot of people who work it real hard, and I work with recovering addicts who are always looking for an angle. I could tell that Getzow was a snake."

Bennett says Getzow was continually talking about his political connections. He'd hosted fund-raisers for Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and for Obama. He also implied to Bennett that he was a health-care adviser to Newsom. Getzow did volunteer for Newsom's 2003 mayoral campaign, but he was not an official adviser. Newsom's campaign manager, Alex Tourk, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Getzow, and consultant Johnny Wang say he was a dedicated volunteer who was at campaign headquarters every day, but after the election he played little part, if any, in the administration.

Bennett says Getzow was soon trying to get the other tenants to join in a lawsuit against O'Reilly over noise from the bar downstairs. Then Getzow changed the locks on his door. "He was laughing about it, like he was doing it out of spite," Bennett says. "It was very strange ... he takes this joy out of it."

Getzow's stay above the Grail was right out of the serial evictee's playbook. He moved into room six in late September and failed to pay October's rent, court records indicate. O'Reilly soon realized Getzow had no intention of paying, and moved to serve him with a three-day notice to pay or move out. Serving such a notice begins a tricky legal process that is fraught with pitfalls. The slightest misstep can set the process back by weeks or even months, during which time the tenant lives rent-free and the landlord loses money.

For example, the notice doesn't count if the landlord slips it under the tenant's door or leaves it on the floor outside the apartment. Furthermore, if the landlord tapes it on the unit door instead of personally serving the tenant, state law requires the notice also has to be sent by certified mail. Even if the landlord serves the notice according to the letter of the law, the serial evictee usually challenges the service, which automatically adds two weeks or more to the process.

In Getzow's case, Hubbard says, after the tenant received the three-day notice, he stopped answering his door or his phone to avoid being served with the complaint and summons, the second document in the eviction process. This is more difficult to serve because it has to be given directly to the tenant. "Myles had to hire someone to sit in the hallway for up to 10 hours a day, waiting for Getzow to come out," Hubbard says. "I'm pretty sure the person had waited there for, like, five days, and they knew he was in the room because they could hear the radio and shower."

The summons was finally served on Dec. 19, according to court records. But that was only the beginning. It would take O'Reilly another five months of wrangling with the court system and thousands of dollars in lost rent and attorney fees.

The number of serial evictees operating in San Francisco is hard to add up because they are good at covering their tracks. They have a number of tricks, such as changing their names to dodge background checks, or using phony landlord and work references. Also benefiting them is a state law that requires eviction actions to be masked from the public for 60 days after their initial filing.

But most landlord attorneys can rattle off two or three names without thinking. One legendary serial evictee used a series of aliases. "I evicted him once in 45 days; it was a record," Fried says. "He was a character. One time he was being evicted under a different name, and when he walked into the courtroom and realized the judge knew him, he turned and ran out."

Another serial evictee, who claims he has a disability, has been successful in persuading judges to have all records refer to him as "John Doe." One evictee is so litigious that two seasoned attorneys refused to utter his name, though legend has it that he occupied an upscale home in Presidio Heights for years without ever paying the $5,000 monthly rent.

With so much at stake, it's a riddle how serial evictees are able to trick one landlord after another when credit reports, court records, and job histories are readily available. But landlord attorney Daniel Bornstein says it's not as difficult as it might seem.

There are many landlords in San Francisco who simply don't do thorough background checks, either because they are trusting or they are in a hurry to start collecting rent, Bornstein explains. "Believe it or not, a lot of landlords are struggling, and they can be in a hurry to fill an empty unit," he says. "And some guy with charisma comes along and the landlord is willing to take a chance."

But once a serial evictee occupies a unit, a host of state laws kicks in to guarantee a minimum 45-day free stay. In San Francisco, which has some of the most progressive rental policies in the state, there are numerous free services and programs for tenants. These include the San Francisco Tenants Union, Bay Area Legal Aid, the city-run San Francisco Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, and several nonprofits that are largely city-funded, such as the Bar Association of San Francisco and the Eviction Defense Collaborative, the latter of which receives about $800,000 annually from the city. The city's rental ordinance also requires the three-day notice to include a sentence telling tenants where they can get legal advice on eviction proceedings, Bornstein says. And San Francisco is one of the only cities in the country in which the courts require that evictees should be represented by an attorney.

Defense Collaborative executive director Miguel Wooding says his nonprofit, which has advised Getzow in at least four eviction cases, helps about 2,000 tenants each year. The collaborative primarily provides information and legal strategies to tenants who are representing themselves against landlords in court. The vast majority of cases, he says, involve tenants who have fallen on hard times or are being wrongfully evicted by landlords for reasons such as living in rent-controlled apartments the landlords would like to rent at market value.

Wooding says the serial evictee problem in San Francisco is smaller than landlord attorneys claim. "It's very difficult to track something like that, but I would say of the 2,000 people we help every year, less than 1 percent are trying to take advantage of the system," he says. "In any case, it's not our role to judge the people who come to us for help. Tenants have a right to present their case in court."

And San Francisco has its share of heartless landlords. One extreme example is the terror tactics allegedly employed by property owners Kip and Nicole Macy, who were charged with numerous felonies earlier this year for, among other things, cutting the support beams from one tenant's floor, burglarizing another's apartment, and cutting off utilities to another.

Carolyn Gold directs the San Francisco Volunteer Legal Services Program, which manages a group of 10 volunteer attorneys who help tenants in the 30 or so eviction cases that come through Superior Court each week. She says she sees very few serial evictees like Getzow. "In fact, what we see more of is serial evictors, landlords who continually come up with ruses for one eviction after another," she says. "There are lots of tenants who have gotten themselves into a tight spot for one reason or another — they're elderly, they have medical conditions, lost jobs — things that are beyond their control. I see it every day, and it's very, very sad."

While this may be the case, small landlords are also susceptible to savvy tenants like Getzow who know how to work the system. "There can be a series of 'gotcha' moments, such as the landlord accepting money from a tenant, that can set the whole process back," Bornstein says. "There's a morass of litigation that can cause delays, and remember the landlord is paying for an attorney the entire time in addition to losing rent."

In May, Getzow and O'Reilly, along with other litigants locked in eviction battles, were jammed into a small courtroom on the second floor of the Civic Center Courthouse on McAllister.

Getzow, who was being represented by a volunteer attorney from the Eviction Defense Collaborative, had requested a trial, claiming he shouldn't have to pay rent because O'Reilly's building was substandard. Getzow's written habitability complaint listed 20 alleged defects including dangerous stairways, poor security, mold, and drafty windows. But his complaint was highly suspect, given that it was word-for-word identical to complaints he had filed in four previous evictions.

The presiding judge authorized Getzow and O'Reilly's dispute to enter the settlement phase, where tenant and landlord both have the incentive to reach a settlement and avoid trial. In fact, only about 5 percent of evictions end up being tried, according to Borstein. For landlords, legal fees can be between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on the complexity of the case. For serial evictees, the settlement conference is where they can get all sorts of perks if they play their cards right. Some negotiate two additional months or longer of free rent before they move out, plus moving costs and a good reference to use for future landlords.

The terms may seem outrageous, but landlords often agree to them to avoid the cost of going to trial. Plus San Francisco is a political town, and landlord attorneys say judges and juries are wildcards in eviction cases. A landlord may win an eviction action, but the judge will turn around and give the tenant occupancy provided he or she pays the rent, by an action known as a relief from forfeiture motion.

While some renters play hardball during the settlement conference and try to squeeze the landlords for as much as they can get, Getzow was apologetic in at least one case. James Babcock, who spent five months evicting him in 2006, says Getzow poured on the charm, and continued to make promises. Babcock, who rented Getzow an apartment in his building at 1137 Bush, says, "Even after I received a judgment against him for $11,000, which I know I'll never see, he came up to me in court and vowed to pay me back as though it were all some kind of misunderstanding."

Getzow, who declined to be interviewed for this story, did not sit in on the May settlement conference, as he normally would have. Instead, he waited outside in the hall while his court-appointed attorney negotiated on his behalf.

Getzow may have avoided direct negotiations with O'Reilly because of an argument the two had last winter that erupted in violence. According to police, Getzow came into the Holy Grail on Feb. 10 at about 1:30 a.m. complaining about noise and attempting to goad O'Reilly into a fight. O'Reilly refused and tried to get Getzow to leave. Bartender Patricia Herlihy was so alarmed at Getzow's behavior that she began taking photographs of him with a digital camera. Getzow approached her and shoved or pushed the camera into her face, SFPD Sergeant Neville Gittens says.

Herlihy was taken to the hospital, Gittens says, though the police report contains no information about the extent of her injuries. Getzow retreated to a nearby crepe restaurant, where he was still in such an agitated state when the police arrived that it took several officers to restrain him, the report says. On July 25, Getzow entered a plea of not guilty to two felony assault charges and one misdemeanor assault charge.

After Getzow had waited for half an hour outside the courthouse conference room, his attorney finally emerged. While it is unknown what tenant and landlord settled on, this much is clear: Up until that point, Getzow had lived for seven months in his apartment without paying rent, and ten days later, he finally moved out of O'Reilly's building.

Getzow is getting pretty well known along the Polk Street corridor. Unlike other serial evictees, who move among different neighborhoods, all of his eight evictions in San Francisco have occurred in a 20-block area known as Lower Nob Hill. It includes lower Polk Street between California and McAllister, where a mishmash of businesses seem to defy traditional neighborhood classification. There are a lot of marginal residence hotels and older apartment buildings whose managers ask few questions of prospective tenants. It's a place where someone like Getzow can blend into the social spectrum that includes young professionals walking briskly between the upscale restaurants and wine bars, old bohemians sipping cappuccinos at cafes, and teenage street hustlers trolling the street for tricks.

Lynne Hubbard, the rental agent who screened Getzow, says the problems he caused put a heavy strain on her dealings with O'Reilly, and they eventually severed their business relationship. Hubbard has seen Getzow walking along Polk, and heard that he moved into another building nearby. "Why does he have to stay in this neighborhood?" Hubbard says as she watches the bustling foot traffic from the Crepe House restaurant. "He's ripped off so many people here, and he continues to eat and drink and hang out in this neighborhood. And we have to watch him."

Babcock, who got to know Getzow fairly well while they lived in the same building, says Getzow has a lot of potential, and it's a shame that it goes to waste. "If he just put the same energy into a profession that he puts into not paying rent and spending time in court, he would probably be a very successful man," he says.

On a windy afternoon in late May, Getzow was moving his belongings out of his room above the Holy Grail. O'Reilly stood stone-faced at the corner, watching the man who cost him thousands of dollars in lost rent and legal fees load his possessions into a vehicle. He was overheard telling one of his employees in a heavy Irish brogue, "I'm just glad to be rid of the bastard."

A couple of other residents couldn't help but laugh when they recognized the man helping Getzow as the manager of a small apartment building at 1470 California, just a few blocks away. "He's a real operator," one of them says. "I feel sorry for his new landlord. He's going to find out soon enough."

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About The Author

John Geluardi


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