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Pols Take Note of Increased Evictions

by Seth Hemmelgarn
Monday Nov 11, 2013
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One sign-holding man makes his feelings known about the Ellis Act during a recent rally against evictions in the Mission district
One sign-holding man makes his feelings known about the Ellis Act during a recent rally against evictions in the Mission district  (Source:Jane Philomen Cleland)

Evictions in San Francisco have been drawing increased attention in recent months, with special focus on stories involving a longtime Castro resident living with AIDS and LGBT residents of a Mid-Market building who’ve all been faced with the possibility of having to find new homes in a competitive rental market. Elected officials both locally and at the state level are taking on the issue.

Tuesday, November 5, gay Supervisor David Campos announced he would ask City Attorney Dennis Herrera to draft legislation doubling the amount of relocation assistance landlords must pay tenants when they evict them under the Ellis Act. Another supervisor said she had made progress in protecting several tenants in her district.

Campos called for a hearing Thursday, November 14 to address the report he commissioned on tenant displacement in the city. The report, released Tuesday by the budget and legislative analyst, shows what Campos’s office called "a dramatic upswing in the number of evictions," including an increase of 170 percent in Ellis Act evictions reported to the city’s rent board between 2010 and 2013.

"There is a housing crisis in San Francisco," stated Campos, who’s running against Board President David Chui for the 17th Assembly District seat set to be vacated by gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who’s being termed out.

The report connects the increase in Ellis Act evictions to an increase in the market value of San Francisco’s residential properties. Average home prices have gone from $735,828 in 2009 to $897,338 this year, a 21.9 percent increase, while the median rental rate in June 2013 for all types of apartments has risen to $3,414, according to the report.

"If you are evicted today in San Francisco, given the outrageous rental costs and purchase prices of homes, you will most likely be forced to leave the city," said Campos, who indicated he’d be introducing more legislation soon. "The diversity and vibrancy of our city is disappearing by the day. We must act to ensure that more than just the ultra rich can live here."

The Ellis Act is a 1986 state law that allows landlords to evict tenants in order to get out of the rental business. The landlord must remove all units from the rental market. Such tenants are paid relocation expenses to move. The amount they receive can vary depending on how many individuals occupy a unit, the tenants’ ages, or disability/HIV status. The amounts can range from $5,000-$15,000 per tenant, with an additional $3,403 paid to tenants who are senior/disabled, according to information from the Tenants Union website. For most tenants, the money doesn’t go far in San Francisco’s sizzling rental market.

Under the law, Jeremy Mykaels, 63 and a long-term AIDS survivor, had faced eviction from the Noe Street home he’s lived in for 17 years.

But in October, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay threw out the eviction, citing the fact that Mykaels’s landlord stated his rent incorrectly in the eviction notice.

His landlords reserve the right to re-start the eviction process. Mykaels said around the time of the judge’s decision that he was relieved, but "the stress and worry never goes away and still weighs on my health. Until this situation is resolved one way or another, I doubt it ever will."

As with Mykaels, the fate of tenants at 1049 Market Street, not far from City Hall, has also garnered several stories in the media recently. For years it’s been home to several LGBTs and others who reside in live-work lofts.

Department of Building Inspection data show that, in 2007, a complaint was filed because the owner was "renting out office spaces as residential in a commercial building."

An inspector at the time noted, "Investigation revealed all spaces are live-work units (approximately 60-plus). Permit research showed only six conversions were permitted."

In September, residents received an email from the building’s management that said, "Over the past several months, the current ownership group" of the building "has spent extraordinary time and money with the hopes" to remedy the situation. A tenant shared the email with the Bay Area Reporter.

The message said that "due to a long-standing Notice of Violation we have been forced by Code Enforcement to get a building permit to change the current unit configuration entirely." The email also said, "Per these city orders, the building must be entirely vacated." But in an email to the B.A.R., William Strawn, a spokesman for the Department of Building Inspection, said those statements "are not correct."

Neither the building nor planning department’s "require evictions; that is a building owner’s decision," said Strawn.

Officials have had "several discussions with the owners over the past 18 months and advised them that the city could offer a pathway" to legalize the residential units that have been lived in for more than the past five years and update sprinkler, heating, and similar systems "and thus provide a safe building," he said.

"To date, the owners have not yet responded to this offer," said Strawn, but "we continue to be hopeful that such an initiative by the owners will be forthcoming."

According to one tenant, current owner John Gall has owned the building for about two years, well after the 2007 complaint was filed. Gall didn’t respond to an interview request.

Management said in its email that it would start evictions from the fifth floor and work down, potentially giving tenants on lower floors several months to find new homes. The email also said, "Move-out monies" per the city’s ordinance "will also be provided."

Since the September email, many tenants have received eviction notices. Tenants have been meeting with Supervisor Jane Kim, whose District 6 includes the building, and others to try to remedy the situation.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Kim said, "I am encouraged by my recent conversation with John Gall. He is committed to exploring a no eviction pathway with his investors to preserve the affordable units at 1049 Market Street."
Victor Arreola, who lives in a Mid-Market building where tenants face eviction, may move to Seattle.(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

But in an interview in late October, Victor Arreola indicated that he’s done fighting and was packing up after 14 years in his unit, where his rent was set to be $817 as of November 1. Rent control rules have kept the price low.

"I decided that rather than battle" being evicted, "my health was more important," said Arreola, a gay 58-year-old who works at Macy’s as a make-up artist but has recently been out on medical leave after a gym-related injury. He said he planned to leave at the end of November. He said the 60-day eviction notice he received cited demolition as the reason, and he has been offered about $5,200 in relocation funds. After living on his own for so long, he’d have to move into a place with roommates, he said.

"If I lived alone, just to get a studio here in the city probably would be around $1,700 to $1,900," he said. There’s also first and last month’s rent, a deposit, and moving expenses to consider. He’s also thinking about moving to Seattle to stay at a friend’s house, which would mean he’d have to find a new job.

Like others in the city, Arreola blames Twitter, which has its headquarters just a few blocks from his apartment, for driving up rents in the area as the social media company and others like it grab office space and draw in well-paid workers seeking homes.

In late October, Kim introduced interim planning controls "to prevent property owners from obtaining building permits when there is known residential occupancy in a commercial building," a news release from Kim’s office said. The controls are meant to prevent evictions similar to those facing tenants of 1049 Market and a neighboring building, according to the release. The city will conduct a survey on the loss of residential units in the South of Market neighborhood, which is "experiencing a development boom."

"We must balance the success of the city’s revitalization efforts with a commitment to protecting the existing residents in our impacted neighborhoods," stated Kim.

In an interview last week, Kim said she and others are considering two other pieces of legislation. One of them involves the San Francisco Tenants Union, said Kim, who declined to share details. "We don’t want to give too much of a heads up" to people who may oppose it, she said.

Scope and Solutions

While many have called the eviction situation a "crisis," LGBTs who’ve faced evictions anywhere in the city firsthand can be hard to find. In the Castro district, the number of Ellis Act evictions has increased, but there is still only a handful.

According to rent board data for the 94114 Zip code, there was one such eviction in 2011, and eight in 2012. As of late September, there have been six so far this year. There were 51 citywide in the same period. The data, which are pulled from owners’ filings of notice of intent to withdraw rental units under the act, don’t show the number of units covered by each notice.

Queer housing rights advocate Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who works for San Francisco’s Housing Rights Committee, has been sounding the alarm on the use of the Ellis Act and other eviction methods and their impact on LGBTs for years.

Either written or verbally, a landlord may tell tenants that if they don’t accept a buyout, the landlord will use the Ellis Act, effectively forcing tenants out. Such cases aren’t recorded in city data, but Avicolli Mecca said he’s seen them "over and over." He also said he talks to many people who are living with AIDS and don’t want to discuss their situations publicly.

Avicolli Mecca urges people who get eviction notices to "stay and fight."

"It’s not completely hopeless, as we’ve seen lately," said Avicolli Mecca, referring to Mykaels and tenants at 1049 Market Street.

He also suggested the city declare a "state of housing emergency."

"Just like when there’s a disease like AIDS or some epidemic going on, the city can invoke certain powers to do things, so I would like to see the city invoke whatever powers it can invoke" to halt Ellis and similar evictions, where tenants are pushed out of their homes through no fault of their own, "for say maybe five years." He also suggested freezing or rolling back rents, or putting a moratorium on market-rate housing.

Avicolli Mecca noted former Mayor Gavin Newsom "defied state law" in 2004 when he ordered city officials to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"We could do the same thing with housing," he said. "We could lead the way. We could be the San Francisco we’ve always been and challenge the law."

In response to emailed questions, gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro, said, "I’ve been a long-time supporter of reforming the Ellis Act."

As an example, he pointed to gay state Senator Mark Leno’s (D-San Francisco) failed proposal when he was in the Assembly "to require that someone own a building for at least five years before being eligible to use the Ellis Act."

"I’m open to additional measures to address abuse of the Ellis Act in San Francisco, as long as those measures will actually help tenants," said Wiener. "Passing local measures that are illegal under state law and that will surely be struck down by the courts - like purporting to place a local moratorium on the Ellis Act or requiring all rents to be reduced - while making us feel good, will not help any tenants facing eviction. We need to focus not on illegal feel-good measures but rather on tangible steps we can take locally to reduce the incentive to use the Ellis Act, as well as continuing to encourage state-level reform. Fundamentally, the state Legislature needs to act."

In an interview, Leno said, "My concern is if we don’t do something, with the current market, it only gets worse, it doesn’t get better, and then the question is how many buildings need to be emptied out before you take action?"

He said, "What we’re seeing today, and what we saw 10 years ago, was the Ellis Act being abused by people who aren’t landlords, who don’t pretend to be landlords, and don’t intend to be landlords. They are speculators, and that is an abuse of the statutory right, which was created for landlords. The idea was to put into law a requirement that someone owns the building for a while to substantiate that they are indeed landlords."

Such a requirement "wouldn’t end the problem entirely," added Leno, but he’s still working on legislation to address evictions. He said he’s "meeting with stakeholders and advocacy groups, and we are discussing some ideas that could become legislation when we get back to Sacramento in January." Like Kim, Leno wouldn’t share many details about what he’s working on.

However, he said in San Francisco, "Clearly, we need more affordable options for both rental and for purchase, but every Ellised unit is a loss of our most affordable housing stock, and it will never be replaced. If someone loses a rent-controlled unit, they’re likely going to have to leave the city."


Campos’s hearing on the evictions report is set for a special committee meeting of the board’s Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee at 2 p.m. on November 14 in Room 250 at City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place. The full report is available at http://www.sfbos.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=47040

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com

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