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The “Mayor of Balmy Alley” Has Been Evicted

Updated: Apr 27, 2022 17:16
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Balmy Alley in The Mission is covered in brightly colored murals which delight visitors. For the last year, the “Mayor of Balmy”, artist Andrés Rojo, has been navigating the legal system after he was evicted by his landlord. Last week, Rojo lost his legal battle and has less than 40 days to vacate.

Unclear if 'Mayor' of Balmy Alley's eviction will be delayed - Mission Local

Image from Mission Local article about Andres Rojo

Rojos initially moved into an apartment on Balmy Alley in 2001 and lived there for a couple of years. At that time, the use of the garage was included in the lease. In 2008, he negotiated with his landlord exclusive use of the garage and room in the back. He used the garage as a studio space and bike shop. Eventually, he moved into the garage and used it as a live/work facility.

Over 13 years after leasing the garage or space within the building, in the spring of 2021, Rojo’s landlord told him he had to move out but they give him a verbal eviction notice. At that time, Rojo didn’t think he had many rights and didn’t know what he would do next. Initially, Rojo didn’t think he could do anything about the eviction. His landlord is actually a tenant’s rights lawyer which made Rojo feel initially that the eviction had to be legal. But a few months later, Rojo found out that the eviction was actually illegal because it was verbal.

view down balmy alley

Balmy Alley murals. Rojo’s is to the left. photo by SF City Guides

“In June 2021, I saw a Billboard saying that verbal evictions are illegal and my friend’s lawyer suggested I seek counsel and I talked to Causa Justa. They helped me send a letter stating that verbal evictions are not legal. A few days after sending the letter I got a three-day notice to quit without the chance to cure then it took about three months for me to get the official eviction,” recalls Rojo. The grounds for the eviction were that Rojo had created a nuisance and a fire hazard. According to Rojo, he was given no chance to cure the situation before it escalated.

His main source of income is helping out his neighbors and other folks when they need bike repairs. His rent has been so cheap that he’s been able to charge little to nothing to help others out. He felt that if he was getting a deal on his living situation then he was able to help others by fixing bikes at a discounted rate. But this left him unable to save money and unprepared for what happened with his landlord, and unable to pay for a lengthy legal battle.

Because his home was considered a commercial lease, Rojo’s learned that he didn’t have the same rights as he would have if it were a residential unit. “There’s no guide to understanding the legal system even people who consul have no time to explain how it works.  The garage is treated as a commercial lease, but it still has rights and I was not given the chance to a fair trial,” says Rojo.

Mural by Andres Rojo

Mural by Andres Rojo

Rojo’s legal team is comprised of two staff Attorneys from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic(THC), Stephanie Smallwood and Raquel Fox. They believed that Rojo should have looked for legal counsel sooner,  “Once you are served with a notice to vacate or a termination notice, seek legal representation as soon as possible. During the notice period more can potentially be done on your behalf, versus waiting until the notice expires and a suit has been filed against you.”

“Unlawful detainer cases (evictions) move very fast in the legal system. Faster than most civil cases. However, this case took some time because his landlord was moving slowly with court filings. Once the case was finally set for trial, it sped up. We were given a tight window to handle all trial-related matters. The trial began on a Friday afternoon and concluded the following Tuesday,” says attorney Smallwood.

The Other Mission Mural Alley San Francisco California United States

Rojo lived at 7-9 Balmy. This is a view of Balmy and the building Rojo lived in. – photo by afar

At his trial, he had more than 50 supporters which included friends, neighbors, the people of Clinica Martin Baro, the people from Causa Justa, El Rio’s bartenders, muralist artists, and even supervisor Hillary Ronen. According to one article, Locals even passed around a petition against his eviction that got more than 400 signatures online and in person. Rojo’s support came from his community work but also because he found organizations within the city that helped him.

“There are a number of nonprofits organization under the Right to Counsel. Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC) is in charge of general intakes and refers to various organizations, including The Tenderloin Housing Clinic(THC). I would start at EDC, who would then pair you with an organization that fits your needs,” says Smallwood.

The legal system is hard to understand and even harder when you feel as if you’re on the losing side of the battle. “The most difficult part was having our hands tied by court rulings. The defense was not able to present an affirmative defense or evidence, such as an expert witness. Of course, not all evidence makes it to the jury. But to know the truth of the matter, and to be limited to certain facts, was difficult. Someone’s livelihood was on the line, and we believe it would have helped his case to show the full truth,” says Rojo’s legal counsel, Smallwood.

It’s frustrating when you’re renting and don’t think your housing situation will change. Rojo was living in this same building or working out of it for so long, that he was surprised when his landlord wanted him to leave. But he’s glad that he was able to find help. If you’re renting, know that you likely have more rights than you realize. There is help out there if you know where to look and who to talk to. “In San Francisco, there is a right to counsel for all tenants facing evictions. We, at THC, will take any case where a person is fighting an eviction, regardless of if the person is residing in an expensive condo or an illegal unit. Our mission is to keep people housed and to stop the pipeline into homelessness,” states Smallwood.

balmy-alley-6 Bike leaning on a garage door on Balmy Alley

Bike leaning on a garage door on Balmy Alley – photo from Spinlister

What’s next for artist Andres Rojo?

When I talked with him on the phone, Andres said that, although he has more than 10 reasons he could appeal the court’s decision, he is out of options because he’s out of money. He feels the best thing he can do is tell people his story in case it helps others. What he’ll miss most of all are his neighbors and the community he’s built around him while being “Mayor” of Balmy Alley.

“I already got the haircut, now I just need to get a job and a place to live, hopefully in the Mission. I got an interview tomorrow for a bike mechanic position, and I’m getting rid of as much stuff as I can. Also, I’m planning a goodbye party/benefit on Saturday, May 14 in Balmy Alley,” says Rojo.

Resources & Links:

Eviction Defense Collaborative 
Causa Justa
Tenderloin Housing Clinic
Clinica Martin Baro
Andres’ website: SpeedyCorona

Balmy Alley view

Balmy Alley view

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.

1 Comment

  1. April 22, 2022 at 9:19 pm — Reply

    I can see both sides. What may have started this is an insurance company. Insurance companies are inspecting properties to see if tenants have dogs. Also, looking at the status of the building for risk. I can see an insurance company looking at this and saying it is a fire hazard. As a landlord, I see the major problems they are facing. Is the unit the tenant is in a legal unit. If not, the city would not approve this tenant living in the garage. If he has been living in the garage and the landlord didn’t approve this, they would have to evict. Otherwise, they would be in trouble with local govt. and the insurance company could refuse to pay a claim because of the illegal occupancy. If this was not an approved dwelling and the landlord knows, the landlord may have to pay back all money they received. It is easy to blame the landlord. But, situations like this are the reason more landlords refuse to make exceptions to help people out so they are not homeless. This action, is a landlords nightmare. What you have done has probably caused other landlords from making the exception and looking the other way.

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