Over six years, the face of North Beach has been altered by a wave of speculative Ellis Act evictions. With state law and bad court decisions leaving tenants with little hope at prevailing, most have moved out – gentrifying the neighborhood, and leaving City officials with few tools but to raise relocation assistance, tighten rules on condo conversions, and regulate garage permits. Which is why the occasional victory – such as the eight Chinese tenants at 152 Jasper Place – is so important. In exchange for the tenants dropping their habitability suit, the landlords agreed to drop their Ellis Act evictions in a settlement that was reached last week. I sat down with two of the tenants – Wing Hoo Leung and Wing Pak Tse – on Friday at Mr. Leung’s kitchen table, to capture more of the human aspect of this story.

Mr. Leung came to the United States in 1992 from the Guangdong province in China, and has lived at Jasper Place for 15 years with his wife. A retired clothing salesman, Leung is Vice President of the Community Tenants Association in Chinatown. Mr. Tse also came from the Guangdong province (in the city of Zhongshan), and has lived at Jasper Place since 1990. Before retiring, he worked at Lima Electronics. With organizer Tammy Hung translating, they told me in Cantonese what life was like for the past two years.

“My life was very peaceful and happy before 2008,” said Leung, when the new landlord – who had bought their building a year earlier – served the tenants with an Ellis notice. “All of us felt hopeless and helpless. After the eviction notice, I lost all my appetite – I could not eat or sleep. With my SSI income at $800/month, I could not afford anywhere else to live. Even an SRO unit in Chinatown would cost about $700/month.”

For one of their neighbors, the eviction notice led to suicide. Daniel Chu, 42, was born and raised in the building – and at the time was living there with his elderly mother. He lost his job right before the Ellis notice arrived. On January 14, 2009, he hung himself. “We are all sad at the death of her son,” said Leung. “I was the first tenant who arrived at the scene because his mother had called for help. Words cannot describe how I felt.”

When the state legislature passed the Ellis Act in 1986, it was presented as a means for old mom-and-pop landlords who no longer wanted to rent their property to “go out of business.” In San Francisco, it’s been used by real estate speculators who buy properties with no intention of ever being landlords – but to instead convert them to condominiums. As tenants, having the building sold under your feet can be extremely disempowering.

“We just saw a for-sale sign in front of the building,” said Mr. Leung, “and we were asked to show it by appointment. We were then given a notice and to detail them of how to pay to the new owner.” A year after the change of ownership, they got an Ellis notice.

“The Ellis Act is very unfair legislation in our community,” said Mr. Tse. “We should have more balance in our society. The Ellis Act allows a landlord to evict tenants, but does not take into account whether tenants have a place to go. Most victims are seniors.”

Before the new landlord served them with an eviction notice, the tenants spent a year of their habitability complaints being ignored. “Our old landlord was very good whenever we had any maintenance requests,” said Leung. “We would call her, and she would send someone out the next day. I called the new landlord in April 2008 because the bathroom and kitchen sinks leaked. He never replied until a Housing Inspector came in late 2009.”

As immigrants from Communist China, Leung and Tse volunteered their perspective on what our housing policy is here. “It is very difficult here for poor people to get housing,” they said. “There’s tons of land the government is not providing for. In China, if you get evicted – the developer, the government and the tenants will sit down and come up with a compromise to ensure tenants get proper relocation. The United States should have more of a balance between relocating tenants and entertaining the developers’ interests.”

Leung’s eviction plight moved him to become more active with the Community Tenants Association, because “I believed I could relate to these tenants. At every meeting when we went to City Hall, three things we would talk about: (1) ensure affordable housing; (2) protect the rights of seniors; and (3) defend all evictions against low-income tenants. Tenants must stick together. Unity is the key. Without it, they cannot do anything.”

With help from C.T.A. and Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), the tenants received support from other groups. They had a press conference in front of their building, and picketed a restaurant owned by the new landlords. Support came from Chinese Progressive Association, the Chinatown SRO Collaborative, Supervisors David Chiu and Eric Mar and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano.

“We are all very touched by their support,” said Leung. “They didn’t just say that they support us – they came to events to lend us support.” With their support, he explained, came power and leverage. During the eviction mediation, the landlord offered the tenants more relocation money if they were willing to move out. “We were able to stand firm,” he said, “knowing we had that support behind us – to fight the landlord and refuse.”

Last week, the tenants settled the case. The landlord agreed to drop the Ellis eviction, and now they say they are ready for a new beginning – and a better peace of mind.

“I want the landlord to stand by the settlement provision,” said Leung. “But what we are all concerned is that because the settlement said no Ellis Act eviction, he will try to find another way to harass us. Of course, tenants will stand by their part of the agreement by being good tenants. We want to establish good relations with the landlord. We hope the landlord will promptly reply if there are any maintenance requests.”

But for now, it’s time to celebrate what was a very special victory for these tenants.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Collier of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (which publishes Beyond Chron) represented the Jasper Place tenants in the Ellis eviction settlement.