San Francisco Bay Guardian - May 14, 1997
By Savannah Blackwell
The grainy black-and-white video shows a locksmith drilling open the locks of rooms in a South of Market residential hotel. The figures on the tape are blurry but readily identifiable: The security cameras record the landlord, Frank Myers, assisted by former police chief Richard Hongisto entering a room and an office of the Phillips Hotel late on Sunday night, March 23.
Accounts of that evening’s events are disputed, but one thing is clear: Myers was there, without a court order, to evict at least one tenant. He would begin a process to evict, without court orders, more tenants over the next week with the help of Hongisto and his Ambassador Private Security Inc., and with the tacit consent, if not active support, of the San Francisco Police Department.
Evicting tenants without a court order is against the law.
The Phillips Hotel’s security-camera video, obtained by the Bay Guardian, indicates that removing a tenant was not the only activity Myers and Hongisto engaged in that night: the video shows Hongisto opening and inspecting a tenant’s private closet and entering a private room; and Ambassador security guard handling phone lines that appear to have been cut; Hongisto speaking to police who had been summoned by a tenant, and then the police leaving.
(Readers can view the video on the Bay Guardian Web site, at www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/Tenants/index/html.)
Tenants say that during that incident Hongisto told the police he had things under control. Hongisto disagrees.
“I think you’re being told fairy tales,” Hongisto told the Bay Guardian. “I never had anything under control. I was limited to watching. I was not telling the police anything. I did not do anything. I did not tell the police anything about anything at any time.” Hongisto denied entering a private room and told the Bay Guardian he did not think Myers had entered any private rooms, except one office.
At least nine of Myers’s tenants, including four who provided the Bay Guardian with written, signed statements, say Myers has engaged in a number of questionable activities. They say he’s cut phone lines. (See a picture of the cut wires at www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/Tenants/wires.html.) Some say they’ve experienced frequent shut-offs of electricity.
Several say he frequently entered their rooms without notice. Two say Myers locked them in a small, unventilated room for three days. Former Phillips Hotel manager Maureen Vu says Myers fired her to avoid paying the more than $35,000 she had invested in renovating 21 filthy, decrepit rooms.
The Bay Guardian made several attempts to contact Myers; he left one message, but did not return subsequent calls.
Tenant activists say the Phillips Hotel tenants’ struggle is not a unique case. Increasingly, they say, landlords are illegally evicting tenants – and the local police are cooperating. “It’s no longer an isolated problem – it’s becoming pervasive,” Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said.
SFPD officials told the Bay Guardian they try to avoid becoming involved in landlord-tenant disputes…. It’s confusing to them.”
But Shaw said it’s time they got a clue. “For police to say, ‘We can’t take sides,’ that’s malfeasance,” he said. “The police are essentially acting as a private security service for landlords.”
Not the Fairmont
Myers, a contractor and landlord who has appeared in court under at least four names, has had nine judgments against his contractor’s license in Alameda, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties since 1993, according to the California State Contractors Licensing Board. State officials say his license has been suspended three times since 1992 and is pending another suspension (see www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/Tenants/calif.html).
Court records show Myers has been involved in more than 25 suits, many of which involved disputes with tenants, in San Francisco superior and municipal courts.
Recorder’s Office records show Myers has owned and operated the Phillips Hotel at 205 Ninth St. since 1979. During a May 9 visit by Bay Guardian reporters, walls were observed to be pocked with patches and smeared with filth, and the air in the three-story building stank of its dirty communal bathrooms.
One tenant, Candie Blacano, whose small second-story room fronts the busy intersection of Ninth and Howard Streets, has lived with a gaping hole where the windowpane should be fore more than a year. (See www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/Tenants/chpix.html.)
In a voice-mail message, Myers told the Bay Guardian that running a residential hotel is hard work. “It’s very hard to accommodate someone to live in a small residential room, because it becomes cluttered; people get disorganized and depressed and get on drugs. It’s a double spiral for them and certainly for landlords who can’t collect the rent, and the building ends up in foreclosure,” he said. “They should change the laws so the city should provide housing for people who we want to stay off the street. I think they should be put to work on work farms somewhere where they can be close to the soil and regain their souls and stay away from drugs.”
Attorneys for the Phillips Hotel tenants say the facts of a 1996 case in which the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California ruled against Myers are similar to the troubles that erupted this March: Court documents show Myers broke a contract he’d made with Cynthia Brinker and her girlfriend to rent and manage Phillips Hotel’s bar, by padlocking the bar’s door. The court ordered Myers to pay $72, 565 in damages to Brinker for a variety of unlawful acts. According to the court’s judgment, Myers illegally evicted Brinker. Tenants say Myers claimed Brinker stole from him.
Reporting a gun
According to Shaun Ralston, who had worked as the Phillips Hotel’s assistant manager and lived at the hotel for two years, the problems he and other tenants experienced in March grew out of Myers’s dispute with Vu. Hongisto said Myers thought Vu was stealing from him. “I was there one night [March 23] when Mr. Myers sought to retake possession of the hotel because he had a manager, in my understanding, who was not living up to their various business agreements,” Hongisto told the Bay Guardian. “and that various moneys [Myers] was to be given were not being given to him.” Hongisto said Myers had wanted to take over the hotel because “he was being left with all the bills and none of the money.”
Vu said she spent tens of thousands of dollars of her own money as part of a contract she signed with Myers Dec. 22, 1996. Vu agreed to remodel 21 of the hotel’s 32 rooms, for which she would be compensated 15 percent of gross revenues. (The contract may be viewed at http://www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/contract.html.) “Security tells me he’s the owner, he can do anything he want,” Vu said. Rooms Vu remodeled sport light hardwood floors, clean paint, and new fixtures.
Ralston said that Myers had asked him for the keys to Vu’s office and the rooms. On March 23, Myers asked him again. When Ralston refused, he said, Myers showed him a gun tucked in his sock and said he was taking over the hotel. Ralston again refused. According to the police report, when officers arrived they did not find a gun on Myers.
Hongisto was quick to defend Myers, whom he said he know well enough to doubt that Myers would ever have a gun.
“[Vu] had just put all this money into the building, redecorating and cleaning up the rooms,” Ralston told the Bay Guardian. “Myers wanted to take over her office and all her receipts without paying her. I didn’t want any part of that.”
Police reports show that Ralston called the SFPD March 23 at 10:47 p.m., claiming that a man with a gun was threatening him. The video shows SFPD officers arriving and then leaving the hotel, after speaking to Hongisto (see www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/video2.html). A later police report reflects that Myers called the SFPD at 11:44 p.m. to complain that Ralston had assaulted him. Police officers arrested Ralston on assault charges.
“I have never assaulted Myers,” Ralston said. His claim is backed up by Tenderloin Housing Clinic lawyer Stephen Collier, Ralston’s public defender, Robert Amparan, Ralston’s fellow tenants, and Vu.
Ralston alleged in a court document filed April 23, 1997, that Myers “entered [his] room without notice and without court order, changed the locks and took possession.”
The cops’ ear
When Ralston made bail March 24, he returned to the hotel. Myers claims Ralston shoved him; tenants John Kennedy and Reid Smith told the Bay Guardian they saw Ralston speak to Myers and that Ralston didn’t shove Myers. Myers called the SFPD at 2:58 p.m., and police arrested Ralston on assault charges. Ralston said he returned to the hotel when released, and was picked up by police and again arrested, for the third time in two days.
“He [Myers] lies to the police,” Vu said. “Why [do] the police listen only to him?”
A San Francisco municipal court issued Myers a stay-away order March 25, making it unlawful for Ralston to come within 150 yards of Myers. According to an April 9 municipal court hearing transcript involving Myers’s complaint against Ralston, Judge Kent Grunewald noted that someone at the hotel had illegally amended the order to read that Ralston must also stay away from the hotel. Myers denied altering the stay-away order, although he conceded it had been altered. (See www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/order.html.)
On April 10, when Collier tried to help Ralston get back into his room – with an order from Grunewald stating that Ralston could reside in his room “without limitation” – Myers prevented Ralston from entering the room. (See the court order at www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/order.html.) Myers called police, who, again, sided with him.
“Every time I tried to go into the building, [Myers] calls the police and tells them that I’ve assaulted him. Two of those times, Hongisto was there and said I did it,” Ralston said. Hongisto told theBay Guardian he had “reason to believe” Myers had been assaulted, but did not see Ralston assault Myers.
Ralston said Myers’s assault claims began when Ralston took sides with Vu. “I’ve been there two years and have never had any problem with [Myers] at all. He evicted people by force and used Hongisto to do it. Meanwhile I’m on the street. It’s an atrocity.”
“Mr. Myers has every appearance of being a hard-working, law-abiding citizen. I don’t see him as a greedy slumlord beating up on disadvantaged people,” Hongisto told the Bay Guardian. “It’s his right to terminate an agreement and take his hotel back.”
Phillips Hotel tenants and their attorneys at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic are preparing to sue Myers and Hongisto for unlawful eviction, entering rooms illegally, keeping tenants out of rooms, false arrest, false imprisonment, and taking tenant’s possessions, among other illegal actions. Hongisto denies each of these allegations. The suit will also accuse Myers of breaking his contract with Vu.
While Ralston was in police custody, on March 24 or March 25 Myers caused a “boot” mechanism to be placed on the door of tenants Reid Smith and John Kennedy’s room, according to Smith, Kennedy, and Collier. The boot prevented the door from opening. Collier and tenants interviewed by the Bay Guardian say Myers did not give Smith and Kennedy notice that he was going to install the boot. Tenants say that during that week Myers, with help from Hongisto’s Ambassador security guards, forced several people out of the hotel.
“[Myers] and Hongisto’s security people were telling people to get out,” Kennedy and Smith told the Bay Guardian. “They were making people sign a paper saying they would leave in an hour or [Myers] would have them thrown in jail.”
The tenants’ attorneys say Myers evicted Vu, Ralston, and others as a result of his dispute with Vu. According to documents from a lawsuit filed by Myers and dismissed by a superior court April 27, “[Myers’s] motive for filing this action is to illegally remove Defendant from the Phillips Hotel and terminate their tenancies there.”
Hongisto defended Myers, saying he was trying to get out of a bad deal with Vu. Asked if it wouldn’t have been better for Myers to call a lawyer to mediate the contract dispute, Hongisto said it was more effective to take matters into one’s own hands.
“How many attorney jokes have you heard? … My rule of thumb, personally, is do everything I can to keep attorneys out of it. I’m sure Mr. Myers takes the same position,” Hongisto told theBay Guardian.
Hongisto and Myers say they were concerned about drug activity in the hotel. Asked why Myers didn’t call the police if he was concerned about drug-dealing, former chief Hongisto said calling the cops was a waste of time.
“As a former police chief, I can tell you it’s not effective to call police,” Hongisto told the Bay Guardian. “If you phone police and say there’s drug activity here, it’s like, ‘So what?’”
Tenant advocates say Hongisto was there to keep the police from protecting tenants’ rights.
“The only reason [Hongisto] was there was to show authority to police,” Tenderloin Housing Clinic lawyer Stephen Collier told the Bay Guardian. “He was there to try to convince police that they didn’t need to intervene.”
Tenant lawyers say the events at the Phillips Hotel reveal a more widespread problem with the police department: in landlord-tenant disputes, the police tend to take the landlord’s side, even if tenants’ rights are being violated.
“The police need to learn that you cannot illegally evict and displace tenants,” Shaw, of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, told the Bay Guardian. ”Here’s a landlord who everybody says has done these terrible things, and yet the police take his side. That’s a scary thought…. The police commission’s got to start doing something about this.”
In the meantime, some of the tenants at the Phillips are refusing to pay rent until the dispute is resolved, and Myers has filed a temporary restraining order to keep Ralston from returning to the hotel.(see www.sfbg.com/News/31/33/restrain.html). The SFPD’s Ackerson told the Bay Guardian that the department’s policy of eviction procedures may need clarification.
It’s confusing to tenants such as Ralston, too. “All my stuff, my high school yearbooks, everything, is gone. I’m on the street.” ■
Additional research for this story was provided by city editor Deanna Hodgin, Matt Isaacs, and Michael Howerton.