When Carlie Wilmans bought David Ireland’s former home in San Francisco’s Mission District, there were laudatory articles saying that she had saved the legacy of the conceptual artist (who died in 2009). Wilmans, a board member at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the California College of the Arts, bought the house at 500 Capp Street in 2008 for $895,000 to preserve Ireland’s work. She then formed the nonprofit 500 Capp Street Foundation and opened it to the public in 2016.
When she bought it, Wilmans told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle: “I knew if it went on the market a developer would come and snap it up. I’m familiar with the gentrification process in the Mission.”
Now Wilmans seems to be on the other side of that gentrification process. She also owns a duplex adjacent to the David Ireland House and has started proceedings to evict the six tenants from the 20th Street residence — a woman in her 80s, her adult child, adult grandchildren, and some of their spouses.
An email from Wilmans said she’s away from her desk as of April 23, and has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiries. Her attorney, Scott Freedman, said through an assistant that he wouldn’t be commenting on the situation.
However, in April, Freedman told the San Francisco Examiner that Wilmans plans to “donate the [20th St. building’s] use, free of charge, for temporary lodging by artists, curators, performers.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 500 Capp Street Foundation is distancing itself from Wilmans’s plans for artist housing. An email originating from the staff and board said: “The staff and the board were unaware of the details in regards to the legal proceeding. We have recently been briefed on the matter and have voiced our deep concerns.” The letter adds, “The 500 Capp Street Foundation does not own, or has ever owned” the 20th Street residence.
The tenants’s attorney, Scott Collier, tells Hyperallergic that landlords can evict tenants under a California law, the Ellis Act, if they plan to go out of the rental business. But Collier isn’t sure the law applies in this case — or if Wilmans’s plan to donate the building to the 500 Capp Street Foundation would be violating the planning code by proposing a residence for institutional use.
“We have a real question if she is, in fact, going out of the rental business,” he said. “The law is a little more sophisticated than that.”
It’s not just the legality of the plan, Collier said, it’s the ethics as well. “The idea of evicting long-term low-income tenants so an institution can house visiting artists is not what we have housing for,” Collier said. “I don’t think a lot of artists would like to know they’re being offered this housing off the backs of these low-income tenants.”
Poet and sculptor Truong Tran would agree. When he and other artists were moved out of their former studio space in the Mission, the owners offered them another place to do their work. But Tran ended up not moving in there.
“The space they found for us was nonprofits that supported the working class community, like the Children’s Homeless Network,” he said. “It’s a totem pole effect. The real displacement is people like this elderly woman, who don’t have power or resources to stand up and fight. Then communities of color are ultimately displaced, and that’s something that’s been happening for some time.”
Mission resident Catherine Cusic, a retired physician’s assistant at a hospital in the neighborhood, spoke to Hyperallergic about gentrification in the neighborhood.
“It’s like someone waved a wand, and my neighborhood went from predominately brown to predominantly white,” she said. “I knew people in all three units next door to me who were there for 20 years. Those units all got turned into condos, and they’re all gone. One of the Latina women is still homeless. This is a big issue for me, and to see someone do it in the name of the arts is just terrible.”
Lenore Chinn, a photographer, painter, and former member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, wrote a letter to Wilmans expressing “dismay and disappointment” that she would move to evict the neighbors. In the letter, which was shared with Hyperallergic, the artist urged Wilmans to consider the “devastating consequences” to the tenants if she did so.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Chinn said as someone who’s lived her whole life in San Francisco, the changes she sees are startling, with housing costs outpacing those in New York City. “It’s the displacement issue,” she said. “San Francisco is experiencing a major housing crisis and the elderly and disabled and those who don’t have means are particularly vulnerable. It’s a challenge to find somewhere else to go in San Francisco, or even the Bay Area.”
Many of her artist friends have had to leave San Francisco due to housing costs, and she would love to see support for them, Chinn says. But not at the expense of others. “Evictions have particularly impacted the arts community,” she says. “But I just don’t feel comfortable with displacing people who are just, if not more, vulnerable than the artist.”
When asked his opinion about the possibility of Wilmans being altruistic in providing housing for artists, Tran says no.
“I really want to understand their definition of altruistic when you displace someone living on a fixed income,” he said. “When artists speak about supporting our community, we need to broaden the definition. Otherwise, what are we but the first wave of gentrification?”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.