Elderly SF couple fights eviction from rent-controlled apartment of 40 years – NBC Bay Area

All these decades later, Ben Wong’s mouth still curls into a smile as he tells the story of Willie Mays moving into his Presidio Heights neighborhood and how he dropped out of school to ring the star ballplayer’s doorbell in search of an autograph.

A lot has changed around the neighborhood since then, but Wong and his wife Cathi have been permanent fixtures. They have lived in the same apartment for the past forty years, their two children are now grown and out of the house. The building is right next to the house Ben and his family moved into back in 1960.

“We love the neighborhood, we love the people,” Cathi Wong said. “I mean, he’s known about half a dozen of the neighbors on this block for 60 years.”

Now in their 70s, Ben and Cathi Wong find themselves stuck in the neighborhood by a thread, caught in a fight to stave off an eviction and stay in the home they never imagined leaving.

The eviction notice came in October 2021, posted on their front door. According to the notice, their landlords invoked the Ellis Act, signaling their intention to pull the apartment off the rental market.

But the Wongs and their attorney claim the eviction is direct retaliation for challenging decades of unauthorized rent increases after they recently discovered their building fell under the city’s rent control laws.

“We will not go down without saying something, without fighting back,” said Ben Wong. “You see so many tenants being evicted.”

The Wongs were supposed to be out in October last year, but they chose to stay and contest the eviction in court.

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“We think a jury will view this as retaliation, and they won’t view the landlord’s stated intent as truly sincere or sincere,” said Steve Collier, managing attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which is representing Ben and Cathi Wong in their eviction case .

NBC Bay Area reached out to the property owners several times through their attorneys, but never heard back.

For decades, the Wongs say expensive annual rent increases kept rolling in, despite landlords they claim rarely fixed anything in the ancient apartment. Taking NBC Bay Area on a tour, the couple points out a leaking drain pipe, a large hole in their closet wall, water-damaged floorboards and a heater they say hasn’t worked in decades.

“It’s as cold as it gets, it’s like being outside,” Cathi Wong said. “There is no isolation whatsoever. The place is 123 years old and there have been no capital improvements. They perform minimal maintenance.”

Then came 2019, and with it, another 7% rent increase. That increased their monthly payment to more than $2,100 a month, up from $550 when they first moved in.

Making payments was becoming a struggle for the retired couple on a fixed income. So they started researching what rights they had as tenants, and made a big discovery: Their building falls under the city’s rent laws.

“We thought, ‘Woah, they’ve been doing this for 28 years,'” Cathi Wong said. “I felt a bit stupid. We never questioned it.”

According to the Wongs, their landlord never disclosed that the building was subject to rent control.

“They had over $90,000 in illegal rent increases over the years,” Collier said.

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The Wongs soon reached a written agreement with their landlords that rolled the rent back to $550 a month and paid them nearly $28,000 in exchange for releasing any “unlawful rent increase or overpayment” claims by the tenants.

“We signed in good faith and thought, ‘Okay, that’s fine, we’ll just take it,'” Ben Wong said.

But the victory was short-lived. Just weeks later, the Wongs say, a process server came to the door with news of a massive new rent increase.

“It was a rent increase of almost 80% of what we were currently paying,” said Cathi Wong.

Collier and Wongs say they have successfully challenged the rent increase. But it turned out to be another temporary victory, because the eviction notice came in 2021.

“We don’t know where to go or how to pay for it because we’re on a fixed income,” Ben Wong said. “We are older now. We’re not young anymore.”

They say losing their rent-controlled apartment would likely mean being forced out of San Francisco. It is simply too expensive, they say.

“It added up to where I was feeling all this stress that I didn’t even realize I had,” Cathi Wong said.

Three months later, Cathi suffered a heart attack as the couple went to bed.

“I was talking to an operator but doing compressions at the same time,” said Ben Wong, who is still haunted by the memory. “And I just kept saying, ‘She’s not breathing, she’s not breathing.'”

Cathi credits her husband with saving her life by starting CPR immediately.

“I guess it was the most traumatic time of our lives,” she said.

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After fighting for Cathi’s life, the Wongs are back to fighting their landlords, awaiting a court date for their eviction case.

In the meantime, they have started packing 40 years worth of possessions into boxes for safety.

“It’s an ordeal to fight, but we feel ready,” said Cathi Wong.

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