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Van Ness Construction Woes Prompt Landlord To Sue Japanese Internment Camp Survivor

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- The Van Ness Improvement project was supposed to be finished this year, but construction snags have caused long delays, which in turn have led to financial hardships for some small business owners, including a lawsuit that has been filed against a survivor of the World War II Japanese-American internment camps.

Last October, Masaye Waugh, owner of Bootleg Bar & Kitchen, showed KPIX 5 how the Van Ness Improvement project was strangling her business. The piles of construction equipment and constant roar of trucks were making it nearly impossible for customers to know the establishment was even open for business. She tried to hang on, but ended up closing in December.

"We lost everything," said Waugh. "We lost our hopes, we lost our dreams. And now we're being sued like criminals for opening up a small business in San Francisco. It's horrible," she said.

Her landlord is suing her for $201,000. That's because Waugh had signed a lease agreement promising she would pay rent all the way up until the middle of 2020, but she said she signed the lease before she knew the Van Ness Improvement's delays were going to crush her business.

She says she had to stop payments in December because she's run out of money. The landlord is also suing her mother.

"My mom was a guarantor on the lease and throughout all these talks about how we were no longer able to make the rent, they were like, 'Okay, your mom's a guarantor, but we wouldn't go after her, we wouldn't go after her.' But they are," Waugh said.

Waugh's 77-year-old mother, Isami Arifuku, is a survivor of the Japanese internment camp called the Gila River Relocation Center. She later earned her PhD at UC Berkeley and co-authored a book called "Five Views: an Ethnic Historic Site survey for California." She wrote the chapter titled "Japanese Americans in California."

Arifuku worked for decades at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, advocating for criminal justice reform for children of color.  Waugh said her mother now has Alzheimer's. Attorney Mark Rennie said she needs her retirement savings for her long term care.

"This is a woman who was in a Japanese internment camp," Rennie said. "It's like, you start your life like that and end your life with bill collectors chasing you, trying to take your house away? We are better than that as a city. San Francisco is better than that."

The landlord is Neveo Mosser, the CEO of Mosser Companies, which owns quite a few properties around the city. Mosser tells KPIX 5 the Van Ness project has been disruptive and makes it very difficult to find others to lease the space in the 2600 block of Van Ness Avenue, especially considering all the delays.

SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the Van Ness Improvement project is expected to be finished in mid 2021, two years behind schedule.

"I have no intention of going after a senior citizen," Neveo Mosser said, despite the fact that his company filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court in December, naming Arifuku as one of the defendants, along with her daughter Waugh.

After months of negotiations, Mosser said Wednesday he now expects to negotiate an end to the lawsuit.

"I think we are very close to settling," Mosser said. "We are very close to ironing it out."

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