Now Playing

Beloved Bernal Heights Martial Arts Studio Knocked Out By Notorious Landlord

Unable to pay a rent hike from $1,800 to $6,500, Navarro's Martial Arts Academy will be forced out in September.


For 43 years, Carlos Navarro has run a small martial arts gym in Bernal Heights whose community involvement and affordable classes have kept local lower-income youths from the temptations of drugs and guns. But decades of community goodwill have earned Navarro little credit with his new landlord, who asked him to vacate the gym by September 20 after he refused a rent hike from $1,800 to $6,500.

As the latest addition to a long line of small businesses being displaced in San Francisco, Navarro’s Martial Arts Academy had its lease terminated, despite pleas from the Navarro family and supervisor David Campos. Their request to at least extend the gym’s tenancy for a few more months was denied by the owner, Alice Tse of Innovistech Realty. Once the gym is gone, Steve’s Bookstore—a Christian bookstore based in North Carolina and owned by Olivet University, a SoMa-based for-profit university—is in line to take its place at the Mission Street storefront, near 30th Street. 

The prospective manager of the bookstore, who asked not to be identified, told San Francisco that the deal was not finalized, but it was “95 percent sure.”

“It’s sadly devastating that someone can come in and rapidly change the neighborhood for the love of money and not for the love of the community,” says Navarro’s daughter, Rubie Navarro, who helps her father run the gym. 

Though Carlos Navarro took the high road, saying his business is not the exception but the norm in present-day San Francisco, his departure is a bitter end to a half-century in the neighborhood. Through his political activism and efforts to improve Mission Street starting in the 1960s, Navarro crossed paths with former mayors Joseph Alioto and George Moscone and local political legends like Harvey Milk. 

For years the Navarros pitched in for Cinco de Mayo celebrations, parades, and other community-organized events, according to Next City, which broke the news of the gym’s displacement. Now living outside San Francisco because they can no longer afford rent in the city, the family provided heavily discounted or free gym memberships for low-income children to learn kickboxing, Muay Thai, and other martial arts. 

The Navarros’ history of community activism spurred Supervisor Campos to negotiate on the family’s behalf. But Tse was not persuaded. “It doesn’t seem they are open [to talk],” Campos says. “There isn’t anything in place for the city to help businesses. We don’t have sticks. We only have carrots.”

According to the Navarros, Tse intitially raised the rent from $1,800 to $4,500. When they agreed to pay the new price, Tse raised the rent again, to $6,500, and attributed the second hike to additional taxes and liability fees, says Rubie Navarro. Conrad Donner, Tse’s attorney, disputes this account, calling it "absolutely false” and acknowledging only the rent increase to $6,500. 

Donner, who says he started representing Tse just last week, says his client has extended the deadline to vacate the building several times already and has offered to pay the Navarros for moving and to find a new location. “I would very much like to work with Carlos,” Donner says. “The property is way, way under market rate. It’s all a function of supply and demand.”

According to Rubie Navarro, for more than a month, Tse and her representatives have called or visited the Navarros nearly every day, asking when they are going to leave. 

Tse recently attracted scrutiny in the press over properties she owns in the East Bay. In February, the Empyrean Towers residential hotel in Downtown Oakland, which Tse owns, was investigated by KTVU for several health and safety concerns. The Oakland City Attorney’s office promptly sued Tse in April, and three months later, Tse reportedly agreed to a deal to provide around $500,000 for overdue repairs, ceding control of the hotel for the repair period. Tse did not respond to multiple calls and emails.

In June, Campos and three other supervisors proposed a ballot initiative to create a Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund to protect businesses like Navarro’s. The fund would give grants to businesses that have been in operation for 30 or more years and to landlords for providing affordable and long-lasting leases for their business tenants. Campos said Navarro’s would qualify for the new registry—even if it is no longer based in its original location—in the hopes that its legacy status will help attract new landlords ready to accommodate the gym.

Even with the initiative on the horizon, the small-business ecosystem in San Francisco remains extremely vulnerable to rising rents. A 2014 Budget and Legislative Analyst Office report commissioned by Supervisor Campos found that the number of closures and location changes among businesses open five years or more increased by 606 percent between 1992 and 2011 (though the report measured changes of all kinds, including expansions). “This is another form of neighborhoods being torn apart,” says Sara Shortt, the executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “Small businesses are uniquely targeted by the market forces in San Francisco.” 


Have feedback? Email us at
Email Seung Y. Lee
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Seung Y. Lee on Twitter @seungylee14