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Monday, January 20, 2014

Ellis Act: So There Isn't an "Eviction Crisis." So What?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 2:59 PM

click to enlarge eviction_art.jpg

If you want to distinguish yourself and earn a bit of notoriety with a story about this city's "eviction crisis," there are two ready ways to proceed: A. Claim you're in favor of it, or; B. Claim it doesn't exist. 

Today, San Francisco Magazine took the latter tack. In a story titled "The Eviction Crisis That Wasn't," Scott Lucas argues, rather convincingly, that "carping about the Ellis Act won't solve San Francisco's housing problem." 

Well, that's certainly correct. In fact, this entire article is an example of how you can be "correct," without being "right." 

"The Ellis Act" is a 1985 state law pitched as a means for aging mom 'n' pop landlords to get out of the rental business by evicting all their tenants. A relocation fee Lucas deems "sizable" is mandated. 

Let it be known that the mandatory relocation fee is currently $5,000. 

Also, in a development lawmakers either didn't anticipate or didn't care to divulge 30 years back, the Ellis Act enables corporations to buy up buildings, empty out the long-term tenants, and profit handsomely by converting the units into ownership properties.  

Lucas also refers to The Ellis Act as a "semi-obscure law," a bit of rhetorical gamesmanship that doesn't hold up. That's akin to calling Proposition 13 -- another bit of legislation sold as a remedy for aging, mom 'n' pop property owners and since abused by savvy corporations -- as a "semi-obscure proposition." 

In any event, the quantitative heart of his argument is the following: 

Ellis Act evictions represent only a small proportion of the city's total evictions--and they're not even historically high to begin with. In the 12-month period ending on February 28, 2013, the total number of Ellis Act evictions was 116--an almost twofold increase over the previous year, but a nearly 70 percent decrease since 2000, when such evictions hit an all-time high of 384. All told, the Ellis Act was behind less than 7 percent of the 1,716 total evictions in the city between February 2012 and February 2013.

All of this is correct. In fact, we noted the same in November: "It warrants mentioning that this 146-percent spike encompasses only 96 more recorded evictions in a city stocked with some 116,000 buildings of two-to-nine units. Semantically, the term 'epidemic' may be laying it on a bit thick."

It helps San Francisco Magazine in its effort to position itself as the adults in the room and fearless city contrarians that the forces most vested in lamenting the Ellis Act are hopeless ideologues and knee-jerk anti-development fossils. These are people without the philosophical agility to admit that, yes, based on historical precedents and cold, hard statistics, there is no eviction "crisis." 

San Francisco Magazine, however, seems to be incapable of taking it one step further: So what? Who gives a damn? 

Even if slowing or doing away with the twisted and abusive current form of Ellis Act evictions won't, in itself, solve San Francisco's housing crisis writ large -- does that mean everything's okay? That the Ellis Act, now a cudgel for speculators, is something we should shrug our shoulders about? 

In fact, there are steps the city can take, and has taken. One of the reasons the eviction totals are lower now than in prior eras of tech ascendancy is that the city has seriously tightened up the rules regarding converting rent-controlled property into condos, making it a less lucrative proposition to boot out all your tenants and start subdividing. If you're going to toss around the statistics of yesteryear to argue that we've got it good in the present, this needs to be noted. 

City officials have also proposed doubling the mandatory relocation payments or putting the brakes on Ellis Act evictions by establishing a permitting or regulatory rigmarole that would render the process every bit as maddening and onerous as doing anything else in this city. As we wrote in November, "That's a hell of a way to govern -- but it'd be nice to see the city's legendary inefficiency finally put to good use."

Anything the city does to make Ellis Act evictions a slower and costlier process will be a deterrent to speculators, who only -- and we mean only -- care about their bottom line. Lucas, however, downplays the role of speculators in Ellis Act evictions. Being as the so-called surge of evictions "occurred simultaneously with significant increases in San Francisco housing prices," he surmises that it's obviously a market-based situation. 

This is clumsy thinking. First, speculators are part of the market, too. Second, the opportunity for massively increasing returns is exactly what would spur an increase in speculation. 

Lucas is exactly right, however, that city politicians are scoring points by decrying a political grendel that's more symbolic than substantive -- and are also wading into cheap populism by calling for change when change will not come. That's because change would require an act of the Legislature. As Lucas notes, "Moderate Democrats from California districts with a majority of homeowners tend to look at the Ellis Act as a defense of property rights, not an attack on renters."

That's one way of looking at things. Another is that the Legislature in 2012 couldn't see fit to pass a bill imposing penalties on landlords already found guilty of illegally withholding tenants' deposits -- a law so spectacularly common-sense that it's even on the books in Alabama. The real-estate lobby is deeply entrenched in Sacramento; that might have something to do with informing the ideologies of "Moderate Democrats" too. 

Lucas' closing quip that attempting to reform the Ellis Act in light of the larger housing crisis "is like using a Band-Aid for brain cancer" is both callous and irrelevant. But that's how you'd see things if the point is to portray some "semi-obscure law" forcing landlords to shell out hulking $5,000 payments as an inevitable market force. 

San Francisco has made many choices in creating this surreal housing market. And just because it can't undo all of them in one fell swoop -- and just because the most rapacious and venal form of eviction hasn't beset the city like cholera in a refugee camp -- doesn't mandate indifference. 

An article accusing city politicians of oversimplifying a complex situation and fighting a straw man oversimplifies a complex situation and fights a straw man. It's not exactly a band-aid in the face of brain cancer. But it certainly lacks a heart. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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