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Cycle of Eviction: Landlords Use Ellis Act to Kick Tenants to the Curb 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2015
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It's no secret that exorbitant housing costs in San Francisco have put new and longtime residents in a bind. The city already holds the national record for highest rent, but landlords are also using a 1985 law to kick middle- and low-income tenants out of their homes at alarming rates.

"The Ellis Act is absolutely wreaking havoc in San Francisco," said Deepa Varma, staff attorney with Eviction Defense Collaborative. "The fact that it could [be used to evict] anyone is terrifying and demoralizing for a city where nearly three out of four of us are renters."

Varma is referring to the state law that caters to property owners, allowing them to evict tenants if they are removing the rental unit from the market.

A new report by the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition (SFADC) shows a sharp increase in Ellis Act evictions during recent months. The nonprofit analyzed fresh data from the San Francisco Rent Board, the city agency that collects records of landlord-tenant legal dealings. According to the agency's annual report, 2,120 notices of evictions were filed with the rent board during the year ending Feb. 28, 2015. That's 54.7 percent more than it was five years ago, according to the SFADC report released April 21.

Housing rights groups within the ADC predict that at the current pace, evictions in 2015 may exceed the number of evictions from 2013, the previous highwater year for housing displacements.

Last November, Proposition G, which would have taxed building owners for property sold within five years of a purchase, was defeated. The SFADC report shows that three months prior to the November 2014 elections, only three Ellis Act court proceedings were initiated. By contrast, so far this year, there already have been 69.

The report also notes that the rise in "no fault" and "low fault" evictions accompanies ballooning rents citywide, as landlords look for ways to maximize profits.

As more and more affluent workers have flooded into San Francisco over the past half-dozen years to work in the booming technology sector, housing activists say the Ellis Act is being abused.

"We've seen countless people displaced over the last few years," said Erin McElroy, founder of Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. "Often people are on fixed incomes and cannot afford market rate housing in the city after eviction, leading to their displacement from the city altogether."

In Sacramento, Sen. Mark Leno's Senate Bill 364, introduced in February and designed to deincentivize use of the Ellis Act in San Francisco, is up for a second vote after being rejected at committee level earlier this month. The bill replicates SB1439, which lost by one vote last year in the Assembly Housing Committee. The new bill seeks to authorize the city to restrict owners from using the Ellis Act to evict tenants for five years after buying property.

"Our city has a really unique housing market, and really different needs, " Varma said. "It is being told by the state that it can't set its own housing policies to maintain its residents."

Walt Baczkowski, CEO of the San Francisco Association of Realtors, wrote an op-ed earlier this month in the San Francisco Chronicle arguing that SB364 was well-intentioned, but would bring "disastrous" consequences. Instead of a reducing Ellis Act evictions, they would accelerate evictions, he wrote.

Anti-eviction activists are dubious of Baczkowski's argument.

"The real estate lobbyists will always say that any reform that will impact their ability to make profit is bad for the state," says Maria Zamudio of Causa Justa, a social justice group for low-income residents in San Francisco and Oakland. As she sees it, the proposed reform to the Ellis Act "protects tenants all over California from predatory speculators and keeps working class communities and families of color in their cities and homes."

SB364 will test the waters again at the Senate housing committee, but until then, activists are left battling potential eviction cases one by one. Zamudio's advice to tenants facing evictions: Unite your building's tenants and stand your ground.

"We have seen it time and time again," Zamudio said. "When people stay and fight, they win."

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