The truth about the eviction of Iris Canada

Tiny - Posted on 15 February 2017

Jeremy Miller

Iris Canada, a New Afrikan Queen, and one of San Francisco’s few centenarians (people who have lived past 100 years old) has just been evicted from her home of over sixty years on the southern edge of the historic Fillmore district, now “Hayes Valley”, by Sheriff Vicki Hennessy.  In a move that can only be construed as Machiavellian, the sheriffs arrived and changed the lock while Mrs. Canada was at her senior program!  As of the date of writing it is unclear whether Mrs. Canada is even aware that said eviction occurred.

The eviction followed a court battle that began in the end of December 2014, and seemingly reached an icy conclusion three days ago when Judge James Robertson II ORDERED (the word order occurs capitalized 4 times including the title of the decision), under pain of being held in contempt of court, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy to execute the writ of possession (eviction) on Iris Canada.  Following Wednesday’s decision, I witnessed a very curious scene in the courtroom.  In a hushed conversation Suzy Loftus, former president of the San Francisco Police Commission and new assistant chief legal counsel for the law and policy team of the San Francisco Sheriff’s department, discussed with Andrew Zacks (attorney for Peter Owens, the landlord) the desire to “keep this discreet”.  Mr. Zacks then questioned Ms. Loftus about potential protesters, and they collectively came up with a self-serving premise that they could justify their “discretion” as being about the safety of protesters!  I was able to question Mr. Zacks briefly after he left the courtroom and he continued the party line with the assertion that “Hopefully Mrs. Canada makes the right decision, for her safety and the safety of protesters.”  

After Wednesday’s setback the community split between tensely waiting, and strategizing for a hail-Mary move to keep Iris Canada in her home.  Members of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francsico (HRC) and  Causa Justa/Just Cause (CJJC) as well as other tenant and human rights activists held a press conference Thursday afternoon to demand that Iris be allowed to stay.  A handful of well written preemptive news articles discussed the judge’s order and the moral bankruptcy of evicting a centenarian.  Another handful of call-outs were made on various social media sites as well as by telephone to various housing rights activists to be ready to move.  Despite this, no one anticipated the eviction to occur as soon as Friday.


“I welcome your comments, but I think we did the right thing.”  This was the terse response from a cornered Sheriff as she was bombarded by protesters and media outside her City Hall office following Mrs. Canada’s eviction.  Standing beside her were attorney Mark Nico, and a deputy sheriff.  Another deputy posted up on the side just to maintain the status-quo image of authority.  This statement was met with outrage by those gathered, and indeed it is difficult for anyone with a heart to digest the construction of evicting a 100-year old Black elder as being the right thing.  But it does beg the question:  What is the right thing?

In order to adequately answer this question we must separate the wheat from the chaff, as well as the political questions from the moral ones.  So far as I can see, there are five questions.

#1   What are Mrs. Canada’s rights to the unit at 670 Page St.?

Mr. Peter Owens, his wife, and his brother bought the multi-unit apartment building which includes 670 Page St.  In August of  2002.  By September of 2002 they notified the tenants including Mrs. Canada of their intention to remove the building from the rental market under the Ellis Act.  By the beginning of 2003 all three of the other prior tenants had moved leaving Iris Canada as the sole tenant remaining.  Due to Mrs. Canada’s already advanced age, at the time she was 86 years old and had been living in the apartment since 1965, Mr. Owens took pains for the next year to create an arrangement that would allow Mrs. Canada to remain in her apartment while still being able to follow through with his plans to convert the units into condos utilizing the TIC (tenancy in common) to condo-conversion framework.  Because this conversion could not occur while renters occupied units Mr. Owens and his attorneys created a novel scheme, where they in effect sold Mrs. Canada her unit for $250,000 on a 0% loan that she was required to pay back at $700/month.  This was rendered as a life estate, and did not stipulate any probate rights,  i.e. right to inheritance.  To the contrary, because Mrs. Canada was living on a fixed income it was stipulated that should she die prior to the completion of loan (essentially mortgage) payment that this amount would be forgiven.   Somewhere around 2012, the property became eligible for condo-conversion.  In order to do this Iris Canada, as a deeded owner, needed to sign off.  Peter Owens was unable to get this signature and based upon other legal stipulations concerning the co-owners,  i.e. the people who bought the remaining 5 units, was forced to enter into the present legal process of revoking the life estate.  This is what led to the eviction.  At any point in time, Mrs. Canada has been able to sign the condo-conversion papers and restore a modified life-estate agreement at no legal or financial penalty, with the landlord being willing to even forego a court ordered debt of legal expenses that ran over $100,000.  The reason that she did not was first expressed in July of 2016, through an attorney of Iris Canada’s niece and caretaker Iris Merriouns, demanding that Mr. Owens sell the property to Mrs. Canada at a ‘fixed’ below market value rate as a condition of signing.  The only discernible benefit of this would be the property becoming inheritable.  In sum, Iris Canada does not currently have legal right to the property, although a moral and political position could be taken claiming that as a 100 year old Black elder who is the last holdout in a gentrified historically Black neighborhood in San Francisco, there is an obligation against displacement.

#2 Is inheritance a legitimate position?

Short answer, yes.  But this is legitimized by a discourse that has barely been visible, and has only truly been articulated by POOR Magazine.  The position would be that based on the intersectional factors of Mrs. Canada’s race, age, and term of residence, she has the legitimate right to claim ownership especially considering that through collective rent/‘mortgage’ payments, of which she has never been in arrears (always paid) it could be construed that she has in fact bought the building!  It stands to reason that a true owner of the building, without any explicit stipulation to the contrary, should be able to leave said real property to their heirs.  In addition this would increase Black equity in San Francisco as a restorative move against the fact that San Francisco has the greatest outmigration/expulsion of Black people of any major city in the United Capitalist Prison States of America.  This said, the inheritance or, as I would frame it, revolutionary reparations argument does not exist in current law, and thus is entirely beholden to the will of the People, and subject to our so-called elected officials.  What is particularly troubling about Mrs. Canada’s case is the fact that outside of POOR Magazine, virtually no-one has articulated this argument, preferring to couch the argument under a tenant’s rights framework which has been essentially elided and/or exhausted.  The liberal argument fails here.  Only the radical truth continues to breathe.

#3 What can be done currently?

Mrs. Canada’s attorneys are allegedly working on an appeal of Wednesday’s decision.  If adequately formulated and successfully defended, this could stay/reverse the eviction, though probably not indefinitely.  Within the bounds of law, civil and criminal charges can be filed against various people.  42 U.S. Code § 1983 and it’s California Corrollary CA Civil Code § 52.1, would suffice for civil action against the Sheriff’s Department for abuse of power and violation of civil rights at the Federal and State levels respectively.  In addition, criminal elder abuse charges can be filed, as POOR Magazine has already attempted to do 3 times, as has Iris Merriouns.  Under CA Penal Code § 368 which deals with elder abuse there are certainly arguments to be made that evicting a 100 year old woman constitutes said abuse.  Here I would suggest including every single party to said eviction, including District Attorney George Gascon for his abdication of duty up till now in considering filing such charges.  This could also be extended to the other TIC owners who allegedly have been harassing Mrs. Canada.  On the street level people could follow the motto of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in upholding that “An unjust law is no law at all.”  To this end, law aside, people could simply move Mrs. Canada back in.  At a less direct level people should make it very clear to Suzy Loftus, Vicki Hennessy, and Ed Lee, that they do not buy the subterfuge that any of the city organs give two shits about protester safety, and call out backdoor politicking as the corruption it is.  More originally the People could pressure currently sitting supervisors to pass a law that specifically demands the right of purchase at a fixed below market value price to any tenants who have lived in one place say more than 30 years, as well as another that expressly forbids the eviction of anyone over the age of say 70, for any reason at all coupled with a further expressed and adequately penalized prohibition on age or race based rental discrimination.  There could be a reparations law passed that also privleges/assists Black and Native people with the reclamation of said ownership.  More specifically to this case, the Board of Supervisors could pass a symbolic resolution requesting that Peter Owens quit his interests in the City and not return, setting a clear line that says that San Francisco does not under any circumstances condone the eviction of a centenarian.

#4  Are Mr. Owens and his family nefarious?

Decidedly no.  In fact Peter Owens and his family have done more than most landlords in attempting to protect the residency of Iris Canada for years, and operating under the current assumptions of property and law have not been particularly abusive.  The problem is that the laws and property relations themselves are genocidal.  We cannot individually fault Peter Owens, who while existing in a white supremacist housing market, happens to be ‘acting white’.

#5  What does Iris Canada truly want?

This is the most important question of all.  As has been articulated earlier, by signing the condo-conversion paperwork, Iris Canada could live out the rest of her natural life at 670 Page St.  If she has taken the position of radical reparations, and wants to stick to it, she could go down in history as a modern day Queen Mother Audley Moore, albeit possibly without being able to stay in the city.  This said, if Iris Canada is mainly interested in keeping her place to stay, and is being egged on by her niece Iris Merriouns to fight for inheritable property rights at the expense of her personal health and well-being, then Ms. Merriouns could also be guilty of elder abuse.  We must get our answer from Mrs. Canada herself.

Centenarians are a very special population comprising only about a six-hundred thousandth of the population of the world.  All of us must reaffirm our commitment to honor them, hold them, listen to them, and protect them.  And we must do so regardless of the cost.


Photo credit: Xanh Tran 


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