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One artist’s garage eviction is a cautionary tale of the shifting Bay Area housing crisis

One artist’s garage eviction is a cautionary tale of the shifting Bay Area housing crisis

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Andrés Rojo cracked open his sketchbook just before noon at his longtime creative home in technicolor Balmy Alley.

Rojo is a 54-year-old artist from Veracruz also known as Speedy Corona. Some neighbors call him the “mayor” of the mural-adorned alley in San Francisco’s Mission district, where he runs an art studio and bike shop out of a garage full of paint, tools and Burning Man-style, extra-tall bikes.

When the pandemic hit, the garage took on another role: Rojo started living full-time in a back office with worn carpet and no bathroom, heat or running water, he said in a recent eviction lawsuit.

“It’s a little like the Middle Ages,” Rojo told The Chronicle, “where the shop owner lives in the back.”

But in a city increasingly out of reach, it was still something.

After losing the eviction case on the grounds that his use of the space created a nuisance, Rojo has just over a month to find a new home for himself and his business. Advocates see the case as a cautionary tale about San Francisco’s deepening affordability crisis.

Expensive regions like the Bay Area are famous for rentals of illegal or pseudo-legal spaces, and artists have long lived in warehouses and other fringe housing. But Rojo’s case highlights fears about more renters being forced to downsize from apartments to rented rooms to unstable arrangements with no legal protections — a spiral researchers call being “precariously housed” or “couch homeless,” where renters lack stable housing but aren’t on the street.

After he rented an apartment in Balmy Alley from 2001 to 2003, Andrés Rojo kept renting garage space for storage, art supplies and a neighborhood bike shop. Rojo said in an eviction lawsuit that years of rising costs gave him no choice but to sleep in the garage during the pandemic.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

“I think we’re going to see more of these cases,” said Rojo’s lawyer, Raquel Fox of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “It’s upsetting to see these conditions play out, when people are out of necessity in these living situations.”

Rojo’s landlord Joseph Bravo denied in court filings that he was aware of anyone living in the garage. Bravo, a longtime San Francisco landlord-tenant lawyer, filed the case as a commercial nuisance eviction, alleging that Rojo kept flammable materials in the bike shop.

“It’s an unusual situation,” Bravo said in an interview. “This is a space that should have never been residential, and it’s a fire hazard.”

Hanging on

Rojo wasn’t sure about San Francisco when he moved here in 1991. A friend urged him to come, but it didn’t seem like anyone had a job, and he really wanted to go to art school in Toronto.

He stuck around to learn English, then got married. Eventually, Rojo found an audience for portrait skills honed as a photojournalist in his hometown of Xalapa, and for more niche pieces like leather masks for the Folsom Street Fair. Most of all, he fell for his neighborhood.