Ellis Act Evictions Rising in San Francisco

They paid their rent on time for years, maybe decades, and got along with both neighbors and the landlord – but they’re still getting evicted.

Hundreds of San Francisco tenants are getting forced out through what’s known as an “Ellis Act” eviction. The act is state law, allowing property owners to take the building off the rental market, essentially forcing out the renters – people like Jeremy Mykaels.

“I felt helpless, frustrated,” said Mykaels, a 63-year-old on permanent disability who’s lived in the same Castro apartment for almost 20 years. “Also not really understanding why local government didn’t do anything about it.”

His story was echoed in Ana Gutierrez, who said she’s lived in the Mission for 35 years. Now she’s forced to find where to live by November.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with my situation, and I’m incredibly stressed out,” Gutierrez said through a translator.

For Mark McFarland, this is also a daily fight. The staff attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic said the number of Ellis Act evictions have shot up tenfold in the last year.

“What we’re seeing more and more is because of the housing market, we see real estate speculators who have no interest in being an actual landlord, purchasing properties and immediately serving tenants with Ellis Act eviction notices,” said McFarland.

He said those who need the most protection are the elderly and those with disabilities.

“I have another client right down the street, she is severely disabled, she can’t leave her apartment,” he described. “She raised her family there and has been there since 1978, and her notice will expire next May.”

This gentrification has been evident across the city, but tenant rights groups pointed to the Mission and North Beach as two with the highest rates of evictions. Thursday morning, tenant rights groups including San Francisco Tenants Union, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Just Cause, banned together on the steps of City Hall to announce proposals to fight the evictions.

One of them was authored by Supervisor John Avalos. His ordinance, passed by the planning commission today, is a move to deter so-called real estate speculators from wanting to buy up rental properties and kick out the long-time tenants.

“When they’re seeking approval at the planning commission, if there’s been a no-fault eviction on the unit, we want to put a moratorium on that for ten years,” he explained. “They won’t get approval for converting units or demolishing units or merging units so they can actually resell the property.”

But Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, said this has been an unfair characterization of the Ellis Act as a tool for landlords and property owners.

“That’s a last resort for a property owner because that Ellis Act is a cloud on the title for the rest of the life of the building,” said New.

She also added that people who rent must realize that it’s part of the process: the people who own the property are doing so as an investment. If they want to leave the rental market or simply make a profit in a hot real estate market, she said, they should be allowed to.

For Avalos, it’s about weaving “humanity” in the process.

“I understand people want to make a living, but we shouldn’t be making a living extorting the housing people have been living in for many, many years,” he said. “Now we’re seeing long-term residents, teachers, immigrants, LGBT people, Chinese, Latino, who are getting evicted from their homes. Some of them end up in our streets, some of them end up living in our parks.”

Avalos’ ordinance goes before the Board of Supervisors next, likely in mid-November. There are other proposals to help counter Ellis Act evictions, including increasing “relocation” costs, which is what’s paid out to tenants who’ve been evicted, or to give them higher priority in housing decisions in the city.

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