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Friday, October 4, 2013

Will the evictions never end?

There was this. And then this. And now this. And those are just the people who have made it into the newspapers. Every month, more than 100 new Ellis Act evictions are filed as the city's affordable rental housing stock (that it, the existing rent-controlled housing where people have lived for years) is getting decimated.

Rule number one of urban housing: In a crisis, the cheapest and best way to protect affordability is not to build but to protect existing housing. The best way to avoid displacement is not through approving new market-rate housing but by protecting existing vulnerable communities.

Rule two, in California: The state Legislature has taken away from cities the exact tools that they need to follow Rule One. The Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins have essentially outlawed effective rent control and eviction protections.

And right now, housing is so valuable as a speculative commodity in San Francisco that no tenant anywhere is safe. The Ellis Act is almost a guarantee of high profits for any landlord. It's almost irresistible. And unless there's a second tech bust and another real-estate bubble (or an actual earthquake that shakes up the housing market) it's not going to change. We're going to lose more than 1,000 rent-controlled units every year, and quite possibly more. There is no greater threat to San Francisco today.

So what can tenants and concerned residents and the city do? Well, I've been thinking about options.

It's not easy for tenants to get anything out of the state Legislature, although there's an opening: The state has mandated that local and regional agencies make plans for increased density to handle population growth -- and I could certainly argue that the places impacted by those mandates have the obligation to ask Sacramento to restore the tools they need to manage growth without displacement. Randy Shaw points out, correctly, that if all the big city mayors pushed the local-control issue, they might get somewhere. On the other hand, he dismisses most local efforts (anything that might smack of controlling the growth of tech jobs seems to be a non-starter for Randy and his friend the mayor) except for controlling tourist conversions, which is a fine idea. But none of those units will ever be rented at affordable rates.

Building more affordable housing is a top priority. It's also expensive and new construction can't possibly keep up with the need. Some17,000 new high-paid tech workers have moved into the city in the past couple of years, and most of them want to live in "cool" neighborhoods like the Mission, so you'd need massive development to keep displacement in check. Building enough affordable housing to keep up with the need -- thousands of units a year -- would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

So what can we do to discourage Ellis Act evictions? Because that's the only way right now to save the city.

Public pressure clearly matters. The protests over the Lee family eviction got the sheriff to back off, then the mayor got involved, and the couple and their disabled daughter have a short reprieve. They still don't have a place to live, though, and the landlord hasn't agreed to halt the eviction. So we'll all be back in the streets next week when the stay expires.

And if it were possible to organize hundreds to protest every single Ellis Eviction, and sheriff's deputies had to get through crowds of people doing civil disobedience, it might slow things down. A lot of landlords don't care; they aren't the ones who have to haul the renters out and throw their stuff on the street. They can sit in their fancy cars and watch the deputies do it. But a virtual war in the streets over evictions is going to get a lot of attention. Maybe even enough to convince Ed Lee to organize his colleagues in LA and San Jose, and make a fuss at the California League of Cities, and go to Sacramento.

Noisy protests in front of landlords' houses and businesses has, in the past, at least brought some pressure to bear. And if everyone doing an Ellis eviction knew he or she would be subject to public exposure and shame, some might think twice. But greed's a powerful motivator.

It seems to me one of our only choices locally is to find ways to make Ellis evictions less profitable. Limiting condo conversions is a great step, but as we're seeing on Nob Hill, people are willing to buy long-term TICs.

There's another approach, though. The city -- the Board of Supervisors and the Rent Board -- control the mandatory relocation fees.

Right now, it costs $5,210 per tenant to do an Ellis eviction. That's what the city requires in relocation fees. The fee, which is supposed to help tenants find other housing, has gone up 4 percent since 2009, while the cost of housing has been going up 30 percent a year. Just to keep pace with increased costs, the fee ought to be tripled. (In fact, a lot of landlords will offer $15,000 or more to get tenants to leave voluntarily, just to avoid the legal hassle of an Ellis eviction.)

But in today's market, $15,000 gets you what? Five months rent in a one-bedroom apartment? For a family like the Lees, $15,000 is almost worthless; it buys them nothing close to a replacement home.

There's an old legal standard about "making the victim whole," that is, replacing what it is a wrongdoer has taken away. We ought to apply the same to Ellis evictions.

How about this: The supervisors raise the fee to whatever level is necessary to allow the tenant to remain in San Francisco, in the same neighborhood, for five years at existing market rents.

You pay $750 for a flat and your family faces eviction? Fine: The landlord has to pay the difference between $750 and the median cost of a comparable flat for five years. These days, that's probably around $250,000. Suddenly, Ellis Act evictions aren't so profitable.

Of course, there's a legal issue: The city's not allowed to put "roadblocks or barricades" in the way of the Ellis Act, Ted Gullicksen, who runs the Tenants Union, told me. There's some level of relocation fee that a court will find so onerous that it won't pass muster. But Gullicksen said there's no case law on that issue; nobody knows how much the city can mandate before the fee becomes a "roadblock."

It can certainly be a lot higher than it is. A LOT higher. Since we know plenty of cases where landlords have offered as much as $25,000 for voluntary move-outs, that much is clearly not a "roadblock." How about $50,000? $100,000? Let's push it and see what we can get away with.

Higher fees would both help tenants survive and discourage evictions. It might drive the landlords to Sacramento to do away with all relocation fees, but that might re-open the whole Ellis Act issue (the law was never intended to be used for evictions and condo conversions) and we might get some reluctant mayors involved. A court could strike down all relocation fees (unlikely) -- but at this point, the $5,000 makes so little difference to a typical tenant that I think it might be worth the risk.

Anybody got a better idea?


  1. The City, like all government agencies, is required to provide a high level of relocation compensation for projects where the City funds a project that displaces if there are any federal funds involved.

    There is a formula that calculates the delta between current monthly housing costs for a household and market rate replacement at the time of displacement and provides that amount for 48 months. 11 years ago this was sufficient to put us over the top, in addition to our 15 years of working savings, in being able to afford put a sufficient down payment to buy in the neighborhood.

    The law involved is the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970.

  2. I lived in San Francisco for nearly 45 years having moved from Los Angeles in 1965. In the last two decades my beloved City began to lose the wonderful integrity of its neighborhoods as well as their long-term residents. This phenomenon has been the course of action since the 1960's Redevelopment programs that reinvented neighborhoods, relocated residents and destroyed their housing and businesses. It was a combination of Federal funding and inept Planning by all. The City in the 1990's eliminated the authority of several design review codes and programs that prevented unwanted and insensitive development. It is not just evictions- the Planning Department and City policies are very much a part of the problem too. For instance, there used to be a code provision that required developers not to take rental units off the market. Those provisions either no longer exist or they are ignored. Under Willie Brown the Landmarks Commission was gutted of authority and commissioners were appointed based on their celebrity--not their merits. They were not even required to attend sessions. Planners are not required to attend neighborhood meetings and listen to their concerns regarding new construction in their area--this is a serious problem. I too was forced out and left the state--I worked as an architect and planner in SF and could no longer afford to live there.

  3. Hi Tim,

    You're to be commended for taking on the question of "who gets to live in SF?" I'm not sure, however, that putting a moratorium on new housing is gonna help address your concern.

    Question: Where did you get the figure of 100 monthly Ellis Act evictions? Or is that only the ones filed? My understanding is that actual EA evictions are a small fraction of that number.

  4. March against evictions. Make yourself seen.