All these decades later, Ben Wong’s mouth still creeps into a smile as he tells the story about Willie Mays moving into his Presidio Heights neighborhood, and how he ditched school to ring the star ballplayer’s doorbell in search of an autograph.
A lot has changed around the neighborhood since then, but Wong and his wife Cathi have been fixtures. They’ve lived in the same apartment for the past forty years, their two kids now grown and out of the house. The building sits right next door to the home Ben and his family moved into back in 1960.
“We love the neighborhood, we love the people,” said Cathi Wong. “I mean, he’s known about half a dozen of the neighbors on this block for 60 years.”
Now, in their 70s, Ben and Cathi Wong find themselves hanging onto the neighborhood by a thread, caught in a battle to stave off an eviction and stay in the home they never imagined leaving.
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The eviction notice came in October 2021, posted on their front door. According to the notice, their landlords were invoking the Ellis Act, signaling their intent to pull the apartment off the rental market.
But the Wongs and their attorney allege the eviction is direct retaliation for challenging decades of unpermitted rent hikes after recently discovering their building fell under the city’s rent control laws.
“We don’t want to go down without saying anything, without fighting back,” Ben Wong said. “You see so many renters getting thrown out.”
The Wongs were supposed to be out by last October, but they opted to stay and contest the eviction in court.
“We think a jury will view this as retaliatory and they won’t view the landlord’s stated intent as really being bona fide or sincere,” said Steve Collier, the managing attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who is representing Ben and Cathi Wong in their eviction case.
NBC Bay Area reached out to the property owners several times through their attorneys, but never got a response.
For decades, the Wongs say pricey annual rent increases kept rolling in, despite having landlords they allege rarely fixed anything in the ancient apartment. Taking NBC Bay Area on a tour, the couple point out a leaky drainpipe, a large hole in their closet wall, water-damaged floorboards, and a heater they say hasn’t worked in decades.
“It’s as cold as it gets, it’s like being outside,” Cathi Wong said. “There’s no insulation whatsoever. The place is 123 years old and there have been no capital improvements. They do very minimal maintenance.”
Then came 2019, and with it, another 7% rent increase. It raised their monthly payment to more than $2,100 a month, up from $550 when they first moved in.
Paying was becoming a struggle for the retired couple on a fixed income. So, they started researching what rights they had as tenants, and made a major discovery: Their building falls under the city’s rent control laws.
“We thought, ‘Woah, they’ve been doing this for 28 years,’” Cathi Wong said. “I felt a little foolish. We never questioned it.”
According to the Wongs, their landlord never disclosed the building was subject to rent control.
“They had over $90,000 in illegal rent increases over the years,” Collier said.
The Wongs soon came to a written agreement with their landlords that rolled their rent back to $550 a month and paid them nearly $28,000 in exchange for releasing any claims for “illegal rent increases or overpayment of rent” by the tenants.
“We signed in good faith, thinking, ‘Okay, that’s alright, we’ll just take that,’” Ben Wong said.
But the victory was short-lived. Just weeks later, the Wongs say, a process server came to the door bearing news of a massive new rent increase.
“It was a rent increase of almost 80% of what we were currently paying,” Cathi Wong said.
Collier and the Wongs say they successfully challenged the rent increase. But it proved yet another temporary victory, because the eviction notice came in 2021.
“We don’t know where we’re going to go or how we’re going to pay for it because we’re on a fixed income,” Ben Wong said. “We’re seniors now. We’re not young anymore.”
They say losing their rent controlled apartment would likely mean being forced out of San Francisco. It’s just too expensive, they say.
“It added up to where I was feeling all this stress that I didn’t even realize I was having,” Cathi Wong said.
Three months later, Cathi suffered a heart attack as the couple laid in bed.
“I was talking to an operator, but doing compressions at the same time,” said Ben Wong, who’s still haunted by the memory. “And I just kept saying, ‘She’s not breathing, she’s not breathing.’”
Cathi credits her husband for saving her life by immediately starting CPR.
“I guess that was the most traumatic time in our lives,” she said.
After fighting for Cathi’s life, the Wongs are back to fighting their landlords, awaiting a court date for the eviction case.
In the meantime, they’ve started packing 40 years of belongings into boxes just in case.
“It’s an ordeal to fight, but we feel up to it,” Cathi Wong said.