Is East Palo Alto Landlord Paying Bloggers to Promote Tenant Displacement?

by Paul Hogarth on May 4, 2009

San Franciscans are familiar with CitiApartments (a.k.a. Skyline Realty) – the landlord conglomerate who bought thousands of rent-controlled units, and waged a battle of intimidation to drive out tenants and raise rents. In East Palo Alto, Page Mill Properties has used similar tactics to now control 50% of the city’s rental stock, and is engaged in mass litigation with the City. But as the tenants organize to save their homes, Page Mill has found a surprising ally – bloggers – to defend its actions. And in one case, the San Francisco Chronicle is sponsoring that blogger’s posts – at their SFGate website.

Both Zennie Abraham at SFGate and Pat Murphy of the San Francisco Sentinel have recently denounced the tenants’ response to Page Mill’s displacement efforts as extortion. Both denied getting paid by Page Mill or affiliates, but Murphy has previously allowed corporate influence on his site – and Abraham runs a business that does “online reputation management.” Abraham says his firm currently “has no clients,” which makes one wonder why he would voluntarily give pro bono backing to wealthy Page Mill. As more people get their news online, it creates incentives for corporate interests to fund bloggers to give them favorable coverage. Is that what is happening in East Palo Alto?

In the last two years, Page Mill Properties has come to acquire over 1,800 units in East Palo Alto – or roughly half of the city’s rent-controlled housing stock. While any one player controlling that much of the market can lead to price-gouging, the real story here is how the area’s housing vacancy rate – even in these tough times – has climbed from 2% to 24%. That’s because Page Mill Properties is hitting up tenants with huge rent increases, offering “voluntary” buy-out agreements, and aggressively pursuing evictions if the tenants refuse to leave. Like CitiApartments in San Francisco, we are seeing an aggressive effort to gut rent control by acquiring mass properties and banking on high turnover to jack up rents.

The community struggle against Page Mill Properties has been inspiring and remarkable. Armed with solid statistics and powerful stories, the tenants have gotten support from the East Palo Alto City Council, SEIU Local 521 and various non-profit advocacy groups in the neighborhood. Class action lawsuits have been filed, and tenants are being encouraged not to leave. Page Mill received loans for its mass-buying spree from Cal PERS, so union members have put pressure on the pension fund to divest its assets. These tenants have put their reputation on the line, despite predictable attacks of extortion – because some wouldn’t agree to Page Mill’s minimal buy-out offers to move out.

Page Mill Properties has hired Sam Singer & Associates – the prominent San Francisco-based PR firm that specializes in corporate damage control, with clients like Chevron.

On April 18, blogger Zennie Abraham – who is also a columnist at Huffington Post – did a blog post called “Page Mill Properties Treated Unfairly in East Palo Alto,” which appeared on SFGate (the website of the San Francisco Chronicle.) In that post, along with a YouTube video, Abraham accused one East Palo Alto tenant – Chris Lund – of being an extortionist, lauded Page Mill Properties for making improvements in a blighted neighborhood and speculated that the culprit was either rent control and/or an absent Redevelopment Agency in East Palo Alto.

Why is all that suspicious? Because on April 16, blogger Pat Murphy published a favorable piece at the San Francisco Sentinel on Page Mill Properties, which lauded the company’s efforts to “turn the community around,” and singled out “one unhappy tenant” for the source of its bad press. Murphy’s article read like a Page Mill press release – because it was, effectively merging two different releases by the company.

The San Francisco Sentinel doesn’t have much credibility, and is known to give its space to corporate funders. Last October, Murphy was under fire by environmental activists for republishing Chevron’s talking points – and would not deny that he took payments from the oil company. In 2006, Murphy’s business partner – Luke Thomas – quit in disgust after Murphy went behind his back to solicit financial donations from the pro-business Committee on Jobs.

As for Abraham, he denies being paid by Page Mill Properties – but the timing of his and the Sentinel’s postings are suspicious. He told me he “never heard” of Pat Murphy, even though the two are friends on Facebook. And like Murphy, Abraham has been accused of shilling for Chevron – and produced videos that defend Chevron against indigenous people in Nigeria.

I asked Abraham why he was interested in Page Mill Properties or Chevron, if he’s not getting paid to blog for them. He told me has “followed Nigerian politics for 13 years” and the intricacies of Chevron, and decided to cover the Page Mill story after he got a call from one of his “sources” in the South Bay. Abraham, however, admitted to me he was paid by a corporation to blog. The Lennar Corporation (another client of Sam Singer & Associates) sponsored his coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Abraham also runs a business – which does “online reputation management” for clients. According to its website, the company charges $3,000 a month to track your reputation on the Internet – using a method of Google-bombing to ensure clients high placement through search engines. The site breaks down its client base into three categories: (a) politics, (b) athletes and (c) real estate. Abraham told me he doesn’t keep his clients confidential, but he also said that the company “has no clients” right now. Because Abraham boasts about his “team” on the company website, I have a hard time believing that they currently have no clients.

Is Abraham doing “online reputation management” for Page Mill – and if so, why does the SF Chronicle give him space on their website for him to blog? He denies it, but East Palo Alto activists from the Fair Rent Coalition report that — right after the SFGate blog post appeared on April 18th — their website began receiving links from illicit pornographic sites. It appears someone is actively trying to “downgrade” traffic from their website, which adversely affects their standing on Google searches. On the website of his “online reputation management” business, Abraham explains in a short video that his company can manipulate Google searches in order to improve the position for their clients — ensuring them a more favorable and prominent web presence.

Meanwhile, Abraham has told other sources that Page Mill heavily courts him. He complains that East Palo Alto tenants won’t talk to him, but tenant Chris Lund said it’s because Abraham is “not a real journalist.” Lund also denies Abraham’s accusation that he’s calling him four times a day. My 10-minute phone interview with Abraham even prompted him to do a blog post about me, where – for the first time – he mentioned getting racist e-mails (and questioned if tenant activists had anything to do with it.) Needless to say, the guy doesn’t have much credibility.

As newspapers across the country go bankrupt, more Americans get their news from the blogosphere. But there hasn’t yet been a widely used economically sustainable business model to pay bloggers for their work. Under such circumstances, you could see how corporate interests might pay bloggers to promote their agenda – giving their message a more organic, “citizen journalist” flavor to it. If acceptable standards of disclosure don’t get developed in the blogging world soon, we may see more of this in the future.

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