On a humid afternoon in early October, the headquarters of the San Francisco Tenants Union looked like a crisis center after a natural disaster. Anxious renters packed the front parlor of the Victorian flat. The air smelled sweaty. Phones buzzed and beeped.
Ted Gullicksen was fielding calls in his back office, from which he and his staff—one other person—empowered a small army of volunteers to assist tenants. In his 26 years as executive director of the Tenants Union, he had never seen so many renters afraid of losing their home. Every month of 2014 had set a record—more than 300 tenants had sought help in September, Gullicksen said, and panic was becoming the norm. “The dot-com boom of the early 2000s was a Scud missile,” he said. “This tech boom is the neutron bomb.” If he was stressed over the deluge—and how could he not be?—he never let it show. He even helped out with one-on-one counseling sessions with renters when he could spare the time, a challenge during the campaign season.
Election time is a big deal at the Tenants Union—and vice versa. For decades, the organization has been a political and social force in San Francisco, commanding the respect of city hall and courted for endorsements, in large part because of its track record of getting laws passed that protect renters. It started in 1992 with a ballot measure that cut annually permitted rent increases in half, a victory that led Gullicksen to introduce a 1994 measure that removed the rent-control exemption from buildings with four or fewer units. When that passed, the soft-spoken, bespectacled activist insisted that the Tenants Union put a measure on the ballot in every even-numbered election year.
Gullicksen, who moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts in 1985 to be a community organizer and “change the world,” seemed to have hit on a winning formula. A fellow longtime advocate for low-income tenants, Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, once described him as the rare activist who could spend one day lobbying supervisors about legislation and the next occupying a building.
By October, Gullicksen was working seven days a week on this year’s big ballot push, Proposition G, designed to discourage speculators from buying multi-unit buildings to flip at huge profit. Opponents, fueled by donations from realtors’ groups, spent more than $2 million to defeat the measure; the Yes on G campaign raised just $200,000 for its get-out- the-vote effort. Nevertheless, Gullicksen sounded confident. “We’ve still got the numbers,” he said while catching up on paperwork in his office on Sunday, October 12. “Two-thirds of San Franciscans rent. We have a large constituency.”
In fact, Gullicksen insisted, the housing crisis had only made the tenants’ movement stronger. “We have volunteers who were never involved in politics or causes before,” he said. “Now, they want to do something to save their homes and neighborhoods.” He was smiling, as usual, and petting his little whitish terrier mix, Falcor (named for the luck dragon in The Never Ending Story), who was curled up on his lap.
Two days later, Gullicksen was found in his bed in his Bayview apartment, apparently having died in his sleep. He was 61 years old.
The outpouring of public grief was unrestrained, the kudos from city leaders universal. “Ted dedicated his life to the fight for the rights of tenants and for affordable housing in San Francisco,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement issued swiftly after news of Gullicksen’s death hit the Internet. “His advocacy over the decades helped to put in place some of the strongest tenant protections in the country.”
Activists heralded a posthumous achievement: a law, passed by the Board of Supervisors on October 21 in a 7–4 vote, that will regulate buyouts, the practice of landlords offering tenants money to vacate a unit. Gullicksen had argued that buyouts not only gave landlords a loophole in the city law that forbids evictions except for just cause, but also made it impossible to track the true number of displacements. Supervisor David Campos, who sponsored the legislation, called the new law “another part of Ted Gullicksen’s incredible legacy of protecting tenants.” Organizers rechristened the Yes on G campaign, calling it Yes on Gullicksen as a reminder to work harder for their mentor’s last ballot measure.
But Proposition G failed. On Election Day, voters soundly rejected it, 54 to 46 percent. Gullicksen’s allies tried to put a good face on the outcome, arguing that considering the money spent by their opponents, the result was actually encouraging.
But the defeat of Prop. G only makes more pressing the questions that the political class has been pondering since Gullicksen’s death: Can the tenants’ movement withstand the blow? Who can replace him? Gullicksen was not only a passionate activist; he was a gentle, modest man. Again and again, tributes on his Facebook page marveled at his humble demeanor, his unwillingness to take personal credit for the Tenants Union’s achievements, his dedication to the cause, his reliance on a bike for transportation, his secondhand wardrobe, his smarts.
In an open letter on its website, the Tenants Union (calling itself “Ted Gullicksen’s University of Activists”) pledged to honor his legacy by “sharing his love of San Francisco, for all people everywhere, for social justice, and for positive action to reach it.” Whether a new leader or leaders with Gullicksen’s unique abilities will emerge remains to be seen.
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco