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Out of Luck 

Ellis Act evictions follow in wake of Prop. G

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Sitting on the edge of a soft, black leather sofa, Gregory Gill looks around at years of collected memories. On the deep green walls of his apartment hang a stuffed pheasant, a beige tapestry of two women dancing, and a white pelvic bone. For more than 20 years, Gill has lived in this spacious, one-bedroom unit overlooking a small garden, a quiet retreat from busy Castro streets.

Now he is packing up to go, possibly back to Indiana, where he has family who can take him in.

In May 1998, new landlords purchased the four-unit building at 3967 18th St. The new owners tried several different ways to evict Gill and his downstairs neighbor, Lisa Gelobter, a software engineer in her late 20s.

Because he has AIDS, Gill was protected from an owner move-in eviction by Proposition G, which the city's voters passed last November in an effort to curtail the growing numbers of tenants being forced out so new owners can move in. But Prop. G wasn't enough to keep Gill in his home. To oust him, Gill's landlords turned to a process that is becoming increasingly popular as owner move-in evictions are restricted -- Ellis Act evictions.

A little-known 1986 state law, the Ellis Act allows landlords to boot out all their tenants if they intend to permanently remove a building from the rental market. If the landlord decides to start renting out units again, the evicted tenants are supposed to be given first crack at returning to their former homes. A landlord who has invoked the Ellis Act can resume renting units, but can't raise the rent above what was charged before the units were taken off the market.

Taking advantage of the Ellis Act, obviously, makes no sense for major landlords or large apartment buildings. But it is a tool now being used more often by owners of small buildings -- typically two to four units -- who want to get rid of tenants for whatever reason.

While Prop. G's passage bought time for some people facing eviction, the Ellis Act has spawned yet another battle front in the fractious wars between property owners and tenants in the overheated San Francisco real estate market.

Between March of 1997 and March of 1998, there were only seven Ellis Act evictions in the city, according to Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenant's Union. Since then, there have been more than 80.

Tenants' advocates fear landlords will use the Ellis Act to skirt rent control laws by evicting tenants, pulling units off the market, then re-renting those units later at higher prices. By then, the original tenants will have moved on, and perhaps no one will notice if the rents have been raised.

To date, Gullicksen says, there's no evidence of that happening. Instead, Ellis Act evictions are mainly being used by new owners eager to open up units for themselves or family members.

"What the Ellis Act is adequate for is the conversion of rental units into tenancy-in-common units," he says. Even long-time tenants like Gill are finding they have little leverage when it comes to Ellis Act evictions.

Gill's new landlords -- Theodore Armstrong and Raymond Dinnocenzio -- say they aren't using the Ellis Act as a dodge around rent controls, and have no intention of re-entering the rental market later on. Armstrong says they simply want to make best use of the property they bought, and escape the vexing and emotional battleground that is San Francisco's rental market.

"It's too much work to be a landlord in this city," Armstrong confesses. "[This eviction process] has taken all the pleasures and joy of owning property away."

Vociferously unhappy with what he sees as an unfair protection of tenants at the expense of landlords' rights, Armstrong believes that Gill and Gelobter are being used as pawns by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which is "taking landlords to hell in a handbasket."

Armstrong says he and his partner just want to live in the house they bought and have space for their guests. During a recent visit, he complained, his mother had to sleep on the couch.

Nevertheless, both Gill and Gelobter suspect that their evictions may be motivated by a desire to escape rent control. At only $516 per month, Gill's rent is far below the market rate and, according to Armstrong, "dismally low." It is, however, all Gill can afford.

Gill has been living with AIDS for 10 years, he says, and for the past few years his only income has been a monthly disability insurance check of about $600. He doubts that he would be able to find himself another affordable apartment in San Francisco.

With many of his friends dead from AIDS, Gill has few people with whom he can stay, and eviction probably means homelessness, unless he returns to Indiana and his family.

Before he got sick, Gill worked as a physical trainer. The stuffed pheasant on his wall is a gift from a former client. He takes it down and strokes it, smiling as he tells the story. "She was about 4 foot 11, with long blond hair," he says. "She wanted to become a hunter ... so I trained her to be strong enough. ... She shot this and had it stuffed for me to remind me of how I took someone very petite and made her strong."

On the end table sit two heavy, claw-footed candlesticks on round, crystal bases. They were given to him by a woman who had been afraid of treadmills before she began working with Gill. He picks up another gift: a small china-doll replica of Gill made by a former client. It is dressed in a little red sweat suit that reads "Root Beer" -- one of Gill's nicknames. "As a kid, pacifiers didn't work for me," he says. "But give me some root beer and I would be OK."

A Nautilus machine stands in the middle of the kitchen-turned-workout room. Screens hide the stove and sink, and one wall is fully covered with a photograph of the moon. A chin-up bar hangs in the doorway, small weights lie in a neat row on the floor, and smooth metal stools arc out of the corners. "Do you like those?" Gill asks "They're made from old tractor seats." A planetary contraption hangs from the ceiling; Gill made it from an old neon Coors sign and a wok lid. The room is a galaxy of found art.

"When I moved [to San Francisco]," he remembers, "it was like I'd finally made it to Oz." Growing up gay and African-American in a socially conservative and predominantly white town in Indiana wasn't easy, he admits. "I lived 20 miles from the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. I was the only black and the only gay in my high school."

Gelobter, Gill's downstairs neighbor, is worried about Gill. Although she is both financially and physically capable of moving, she chose to stay and fight her eviction with him. "Part of the reason I've stuck around is for Gill," she says, "making sure he's OK."

Gelobter was first told that she was being evicted in May due to an owner move-in. She didn't fight the process and soon found another apartment -- at a significant rise in rent. After she had put down a deposit and was preparing to move, however, she was visited by Armstrong and Dinnocenzio. She says the two men told her she was a good tenant, and that they'd been losing sleep over evicting her. They wanted her to stay. Shortly afterward, she says, Gill was told that he was being evicted instead.

Gill and Gelobter both claim their new landlords have harassed them for fighting the evictions, allegations that Armstrong calls "totally without merit, totally preposterous." Armstrong stresses his sensitivity, as a gay man, to people living with AIDS. He disagrees with both Gill's and Gelobter's accounts of their eviction saga and insists that he, at one point, offered Gelobter $10,000 to leave.

"Had she taken the $10,000 and gone, Gill would have been untouched," Armstrong says.

When Gill and Gelobter refused to leave, Armstrong and his partner decided to invoke the Ellis Act and evict all tenants from the building. While the downstairs, street-front tenants left without protest, Gill and Gelobter still refused to leave their more coveted, backyard-facing apartments.

"Now there are two open apartments, but they are the two worst in the building," complains Armstrong. He and his partner would prefer to have the backyard apartments. They want a place for their dog to hang out, and they don't want to listen to the traffic on 18th Street. They now have access to two apartments in the building, but they still want Gill and Gelobter out.

Leaning against a wall beside Gill's front door is a vacuum cleaner. With a quick laugh he says that his landlords put it there "to remind me that they're going to make a clean sweep." Throughout the apartment, painstakingly stripped wood molding softly reflects the warm light. The house is meticulously clean, with all its detail in comfortable order. "I put all my energy into this place," explains Gill. "I was thinking not only of these 21 years I've been here, but -- without AIDS -- I was thinking of the next 21 years."

Cautious about the outcome of his and Gelobter's case, Gill is trying to enjoy the time he has left in his apartment. He stays at home a lot, watching movies and caring for his plants. Every morning, he picks a fresh gardenia.

"This is my pride and joy," he says, sliding open a glass door to a deck lush with leaves and flowers. "I went yesterday to a plant store ... and asked them if they could take my plants for me." He's worried about what will happen to them when he does have to move.

Gill finishes his detailed tour and sits back down. "Everything here is a memento of someone I've known. ... Everything here has a story behind it."

The beige tapestry of two women dancing reminds him of himself and a late lover. "Both of my lovers died in this apartment," he confides. A clock on the mantel softly chimes 6 o'clock. And who does the smooth white bone remind him of? Gill laughs. "It's the ass of a jackass. Like rich people always have heads of animals on the wall. Well, I'm poor so I have an ass on the wall.

About The Author

Regan Brooks

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