Where Are We at with Ellis Act Evictions (and How Did We Get Here?)
Fillmore rapper DaVinci was unhappy about the situation in San Francisco when he released his album The Day the Turf Stood Still.
In that record he fumed at the policies of urban renewal that have squeezed the black community in the city. On the track “Aristocrat” he gets specific: “Tenants here smothered in bills, one bedroom apartment – twelve hundred – they expect us to live?”
But he dropped that album in 2010, and given how nuts things have gotten since then – like the post-fire one-bedroom renovation on Haight and Fillmore that was going for $3995 – that apartment he described sounds like a steal. $1,200?! Settle in, adopt some cats, move in the piano, and hope to God that it’s rent controlled. But nowadays even rent-control protections cannot save you from the threat of eviction, thanks to what is increasingly becoming a household name in San Francisco: the Ellis Act.
If you live in the city, you’ve seen the Ellis Act eviction maps; you’ve heard the recent data about how many minimum wage jobs you’d have to work to afford certain neighborhoods; you’ve seen the human face put on this issue when the Yee family was evicted from their Nob Hill apartment after 34 years; and when you heard news that René Yañez – an artist who helped found the Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in the city, and who has terminal cancer – faces a similar threat after spending three and a half decades in his Mission apartment.
So how did we get here, and what can we do about it?
In the late 1970s, the city of Santa Monica enacted local legislation to help protect rent-controlled properties and specifically to protect low- and moderate-income tenants from eviction. Then came Jerome Nash, a young landlord whose mother had bought him a building when he was 17. Finding the business of owning a building unsuitable a few years later, he hoped to tear down the building (which of course meant evicting his tenants), but was denied a permit because of the city’s recent housing protections. Nash challenged the decision in court and succeeded, but lost on appeal in the state Supreme Court (Nash v. City of Santa Monica in 1984).
Luckily for him, he had a buddy in state government, Republican Senator Jim Ellis from San Diego. Ellis introduced and subsequently passed an act essentially intended just for Nash to get out of his particular predicament. The gist of this new California law allowed landowners to get out of the business of being a landlord and get out from under public protections for housing (such as Santa Monica’s rent control law).
Nash was a fitting poster child for the type of predatory speculation the Ellis Act would later encourage. Consider his statement about his case: "There is only one thing I want to do, and that is to evict the group of ingrates inhabiting my units, tear down the building, and hold on to the land until I can sell it at a price which will not mean a ruinous loss on my investment."
Despite Nash’s candor on the subject, the Ellis Act was not controversial when adopted, and only used a handful of times per year statewide for the first 10 or so years. It wasn’t until the first dot-com boom in the mid ’90s that San Francisco witnessed a tremendous spike in Ellis Act evictions after landlord advocates discovered they could flip rent-controlled buildings into much more lucrative ownership units, tenancy in common units, or condos.
“There is only one thing I want to do, and that is to evict the group of ingrates inhabiting my units”
And while this newly discovered method of quickly destroying rent-controlled housing may not have been the intention of Ellis, it has so far survived most major legal challenges.
“There are no [legal] defenses for an Ellis Act eviction, even if it’s retaliatory,” describes Professor Ora Prochovnick, director of the Clinical and Public Interest Law Programs at JFK University. The normal “just cause” reasons for eviction that usually protect San Franciscans, she explains, do not apply to an Ellis eviction. Essentially, you can have an Ellis case thrown out if the landlord screws up the paperwork, but if they do everything right, it doesn’t matter if their reason for eviction stems from the fact that you complain about the rodent problem. So when you hear about “Ellis victories,” you’re hearing about procedural victories (but that doesn’t mean they are not worth fighting).
Jeremy Mykaels is the lone tenant in his Castro building apartment, where he has lived for the past 18 years. As a disabled senior, he was allowed a full year’s notice to vacate the premises following an Ellis eviction, as opposed to the normal 120-day period. His year ended, but he challenged the procedural process of the eviction. His case was dismissed upon the discovery that his landlord had incorrectly stated the amount of rent Mykaels was paying. Since then, the owner has yet to attempt to Ellis him out of the building again.
“It was not easy for me to have to publicly divulge the fact that I am a gay senior living with AIDS who was being evicted under the Ellis Act”
Mykaels wasn’t alone in the fight. In the days leading to his court case protestors rallied in the street outside of his home. Last summer tenants rights advocates even made the trek to Atherton to protest at his landowner’s home.
In a recent email, Mykaels had the following advice for tenants willing to dig their heels in and stay put: Get a good lawyer who will scrutinize the Ellis filing (as he did), connect with a tenants counseling group (like theTenants Union or the Housing Rights Committee), and – perhaps the most difficult one – make your eviction account public. "It was not easy for me to have to publicly divulge the fact that I am a gay senior living with AIDS who was being evicted under the Ellis Act in order for the media to take notice of my story," he says. But they did take notice and that may well have contributed to the fact that he's still living in San Francisco.
Mykaels acknowledges that it's not feasible for every single tenant to stay and fight in the way that he did, but that doesn't mean there isn't something to be gained by ruffling some feathers on the way out.
San Francisco has mandated that landlords pay relocation fees to every tenant who is being evicted by Ellis; roughly $5,200 a person and up to roughly $15,600 per family (seniors and people with disabilities receive additional compensation). Rather than deal with the hassle of the Ellis paperwork, however, some property owners will offer tenants a buyout to vacate, threatening an Ellis eviction if they don't.
Rebecca Gourevitch of the SF Tenants Union (who helped Mykaels) says that SFTU recommends tenants wait for a buyout offer to see if the owner is actually serious about going through with an Ellis. “We think of buyouts just like we think of evictions; they are technically voluntary, but they come with a lot of harassment and pressure to sign,“ she says.
The owner may well be serious about carrying out an Ellis, in which case you would be eligible for the relocation money. And that's where it can get tricky: trying to determine if it's worth waiting it out in case an Ellis never goes through or taking the quick money and hoping to find another place. At the least, negotiating a buyout can make for a much more lucrative payment than one might've received via the relocation money.
"Some get offered more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives but in today’s market, it’s not significant," Professor Prochovnick says. And often that money is gone within a year. "Most people who get relocation money can’t stay in San Francisco, even if they’ve lived here their whole life,” she says. “Some are not able to stay in the Bay Area. [It's] not really a viable solution.”
In December, the SF Board of Supervisors passed three measures aimed at protecting affordable housing and giving relief to Ellis eviction tenants, and Mayor Lee is expected to sign them.
In San Francisco, politicians cannot stop landlords from “going out of business” as Ellis allows, but they
can find ways to limit the damages from such evictions and discourage the practice overall. And while the mayor has not laid out his specific ideas for changing the law statewide, he has pledged – along with state Senators Mark Leno and Assemblymember Phil Ting – to introduce state legislation to address Ellis eviction issues. Last week the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution encouraging Ellis reform at the state level, specifically requesting local control. It could be an uphill battle in Sacramento, but it’s encouraging that politicians are paying attention to the outrage at home.
“You have to make a lot of noise in the streets,” stated Prochovnick the day after the City Council measures were voted on. “That wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have what’s been going on in the street, and it’s not a coincidence it’s three days after the Google bus was stopped.”
Ah yes, the infamous Google bus protest (the first of two). A polarizing event to be sure, but one that brought national attention to an issue that I think most people would agree has become a major problem in San Francisco.
You don’t have to be facing eviction to put up a fight, and you don’t have to be an activist to make some noise
Whatever your industry, it's hard to imagine large-scale opposition to the fight to keep longtime San Franciscans in their city. If we can find some common ground to rally around, we can hold onto the community and culture that brought so many people here in the first place. I think Jeremy Mykaels says it best:
"The more of us willing to stand up for ourselves and fight our evictions, the more allies we seem to find ready to join us in what has truly become a fight for the soul of this great city."
You don’t have to be facing eviction to put up a fight, and you don’t have to be an activist to make some noise. The city could sure use the help.