Denhi Donis sits in her Bernal Heights kitchen on May 16, 2022, holding flowers she planned to give away to friends and supporters, who gathered outside her home to protest an Ellis Act eviction she is facing after 15 years in her apartment. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Denhi Donis, known in her San Francisco neighborhood as the Flower Lady for both selling flowers and offering them for free, is facing the second attempt in two years by her landlords to evict her from the apartment she has called home for the last 15 years. Her landlords' first attempt at an Ellis Act eviction was put on hold by pandemic-related eviction protections. They are now attempting to evict her again.
A demonstration held in front of Donis' Bernal Heights home on Monday was attended by more than 100 community members holdings signs, playing music and protesting her eviction on the day before it was set to go into effect.
"I used to pick flowers because it makes me happy," said Donis during the demonstration. "I'm an Indigenous person and that's my way of praying and contributing to protests, cultural events and ceremonial events. I have provided neighbors with a flower or two as a way of thanking everyone. I love my community."
Donis, 65, says her wish would be to stay in her two-bedroom unit for another year so she can recuperate from two surgeries she needs to have, related to serious ongoing health issues. Donis is a cancer survivor.
"[My mom] needs two immediate surgeries and hasn't been able to book them not knowing if she would be without a home," Maya Luna, Donis' daughter, told KQED on Thursday. "The stress from the situation has accelerated some of her ailments. Right now we want to come up with an agreement that gives her time to address her health needs."
"I’m praying the landlords withdraw the Ellis Act eviction," Donis said on Monday. "If I didn’t know English, if I was illegal and if I didn’t know my rights, I would have already been kicked out."
More than 500 people have signed a petition asking the landlords, Thorsten Gernoth and Blanca Estela Rodríguez, to stop the eviction and keep Donis housed. Even before she received notice of the pending Ellis Act eviction, Donis said she had issues with her landlords ranging from being prohibited from accessing their backyard, to appliance issues in the apartment including her stove remaining broken for over two years.
An attorney representing Gernoth and Rodríguez did not return KQED's requests for comment.
María Cristina Gutiérrez, an activist, spoke on Donis' behalf during Monday's demonstration and recalled how Donis has been present for several social justice movements.
"She is not an elder being a victim, she is a revolutionary being the victim in this community and we must take care of our people, brothers and sisters," said Gutiérrez. "They allowed all these landowners to rip us off by charging money that we cannot afford and giving us salaries that are miserable, giving bad education to our children and denying us free health care. That's what this whole system is all about. Not just the eviction."
The Ellis Act is a 1986 law that allows landlords to evict their tenants to exit the rental market — but according to tenant advocates, it's often used to evict residents with the aim of eventually flipping the property for a profit. Under the Ellis Act, for five years after evicting a tenant, a landlord may not re-rent the same unit for more than the rent-controlled rate. After five years, a landlord may raise rent to market value. Evicted tenants have the right of first refusal if their unit is put back on the rental market within 10 years.
Tenants groups like Tenants Together and Housing Rights Committee are currently advocating for a statewide measure — Assembly Bill 2050 — that would work as a safeguard by prohibiting Ellis Act evictions if an owner hasn't owned the building for at least five years. The bill would also prohibit evictions by a landlord who has used the Ellis Act within the last 10 years on another building.
"The Ellis Act is probably one of the worst pieces of legislation ever enacted in Sacramento, but we do have the opportunity to not repeal it, but reform it in a major way with AB 2050," said Steve Collier, lead managing attorney for San Francisco's Tenderloin Housing Clinic, at Monday's demonstration. "The bill would basically require you to actually be a landlord in the rental business before you get out of the business. So you'll actually have to be there as a landlord and have tenants instead of just scooping up property, evicting the tenants and then flipping [the building]."
Raquel Fox, an attorney representing Donis who works at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said she hopes AB 2050 will pass and help stop Ellis Act abuses.
"Under the Ellis Act, if the speculators in [Donis'] building were to offer the apartment back to her within the first five years, it would still have to be ... under $500 a month," said Fox. "But if they waited five years ... they could offer the apartment back to this senior at fair market value. So they could say, 'We want $8,000 a month to rent' ... and in most scenarios, the tenant would be priced out and the landlords could turn around and just rent at fair market value."
Born in Mexico, Donis came to San Francisco 25 years ago with her two children, Maya and Emiliano, after fleeing domestic violence in Chicago.
She and her family spent their first year in a shelter before she got on her feet working at the Women's Building in the Mission District and other nonprofit organizations in the city. Donis said she lived in the Mission for 10 years until gentrification forced her out, and she moved to her current apartment in Bernal Heights. She's become a familiar face to local residents for donating flowers to community advocates in the neighborhood, as well as for Día de Muertos altars and New Year's celebrations.
After a suggestion from her son, she began selling flowers on Valentine's Day six years ago on Cortland Avenue.
"In the Bay Area, there's no such thing as affordable housing anymore," said Maya Luna. "It's not realistic to find housing for my mom, who is a street vendor. My mom brings joy and supports community events, and the community heard her cry in her time of need and answered the call. It’s the pressure we have in numbers that this issue that goes beyond my mom's single case to the forefront of the City Council to make reforms in the law to not allow an elder to be pushed out of her home."
KQED's Sara Hossaini and Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí contributed reporting to this story.
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