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Commercial Landlords are Stealing San Francisco’s Soul

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Lefty O’Douls is one of the many San Francisco institutions that’s fallen victim to greedy commercial landlords. (Courtesy Kent Buckingham/Flickr) 

This originally appeared in my Broke-Ass City column in the San Francisco Examiner. 

In the past seven years, San Francisco has been staggering under the weight of an ugly and brutal struggle: whether to run from its past or hide from its future. You know this. We’ve all had too many friends forced to move, seen too many neighbors evicted and watched helplessly as rents reach “Ground Control to Major Tom” heights. There’s been plenty of mud flung at residential landlords for being greedy monsters who are willing to evict 90-year-old ladies and school teachers. Hell, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project even has a list of the worst evictors in San Francisco with a rundown of what kind of vile chicanery they’ve done.

But there hasn’t been nearly enough chaw spit at the commercial landlords who are equally, if not more, rapacious than the residential ones. While sending away the people of San Francisco has been like cutting out its heart, losing the local businesses has been like stealing its soul. And we can thank the commercial landlords for that.

This is by no means to say all commercial landlords are avaricious scumbags. Just like residential ones, there are some really wonderful building owners for whom San Francisco is more than just a financial investment.

Then, there are people like Jon Handlery, often referred to as the Donald Trump of Union Square. Upon inheriting the vast fortune of his daddy’s Union Square real estate empire, Handlery turned around and began evicting San Francisco landmarks.

In 2012, he got rid of the Gold Dust Lounge, which had been a San Francisco institution since 1933, so multinational clothing store Express could move in. (There was already an Express three blocks away at the mall.) Last year, Handlery evicted Lefty O’Doul’s, the legendary Union Square restaurant and bar that had been serving love and baseball to San Franciscans and tourists since 1958. It takes a real heartless bastard to gut two places that meant so much to so many people.

Jon Handlery, the heartless bastard of a commercial landlord who’s evicted at least two SF Landmarks.

Unfortunately, Handlery isn’t the only swine in town. He’s just one of the few to which we can actually put a name. More and more people are turning over the running of their buildings to faceless property management companies that don’t even see tenants as humans, but simply numbers in their ledgers. Some are local companies that only work in the Bay; others are part of national and international conglomerates. Regardless, they give zero shits about you.

Back in the day, when most buildings were owned by individuals, a tenant could appeal to a landlord on personal level, depending on how kind or understanding the individual was. But when a management company’s main directive is to simply get as much money for its client as possible, there’s no one to reason with. Management companies don’t care about the soul of a city.

Think about it: How many of your favorite places have closed? How many San Francisco landmarks have you seen go dark because the landlord tripled the rent? And the galling thing is that many of these building owners didn’t buy the buildings themselves — they inherited them! The cajones one must have to take something he or she didn’t necessarily earn and then say, “Get rid of that hard-working local business so I can make more money for doing absolutely nothing.”

So, to all of San Francisco’s commercial landlords: Stop being such greedy wankers!

It’s hard enough that local businesses have to compete with online retailers; they shouldn’t also have to worry about you tripling their rent. Even if you’re a heartless money goblin just hoping to get a big chain to pay your exorbitant rents, you have to realize that San Francisco limits the amount of chain retail allowed. There’s already an entire, recently built mall that’s sitting empty on Market Street. Do you really think Applebee’s is going open up in your empty building?

Instead of letting your vacant building sit there as a blighted tax deduction, rent it to someone who is actually trying to make something wonderful in The City. San Francisco has lost enough already without you trying to steal its soul as well.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.