Are All Landlords Who Use the Ellis Act Bad?

The assembled group takes a final picture. The banner's message was frequently voiced by the march's organizers.  Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

The assembled group takes a final picture. The banner's message was frequently voiced by the march's organizers. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

En Español.

Some 30 protesters marched against Leona Fong’s Ellis Act eviction of 24-year Mission resident Sergio Silva-Lainez last Saturday afternoon, visiting each of the Fong family’s eight properties in the Mission. Chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the Ellis Act has got to go!” erupted from the crowd as it snaked its way through the Mission, delivering certificates of “honorary membership” to the “Mission Bad Landlord Club” at each Fong property.

But are the Fongs bad landlords?  The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s “Dirty Dozen” list—the Fongs are not on it—is filled with serial evictors (with Ellised buildings ranging anywhere from 10 to 69) who often flip properties for a tidy profit. Other landlords have been targeted for charges that include intimidation of tenants and severe disrepair.

Some 30 protesters formed the main group of the march, but at the 24th St. BART Station they had a captivated audience of some 30 more. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Some 30 protesters formed the main group of the march, but at the 24th St. BART Station they had a captivated audience of some 30 more. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

The Fongs, on the other hand, have no noted complaints on their properties and are adamant that they plan on moving into the building themselves. They argue that they’ve given Silva-Lainez a long lead time to find a new place, even offering him a smaller place in one of their own buildings, verified by someone speaking for the tenant.

“I just feel sickened,” said Elizabeth Fong. “We’re just being targeted for this incident. My mother has worked here for 45 years. We’re local, we’re family-funded, we have no outside investors. We’re not trying to flip the property.” She added that having only one eviction out of all their buildings is a “pretty damn good record.”

Housing advocates, however, argued otherwise. And the focus on the Fongs raises the question: Is it ever just to pursue a no-fault eviction?

Ted Gullicksen from the San Francisco Tenants’ Union (SFTU), says no, emphasizing that the Fong family has the resources to find a place without evicting an entire family. “Nobody should be evicted for no-fault reasons in San Francisco,” he said, referring to the kind of eviction where the tenant has paid rent on time and is not at fault. “There are plenty of places you can buy that don’t require you to evict people.”

The Mission/Bernal Chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a co-sponsor of the march, values the Fong properties in the Mission at slightly more than $9 million. ACCE is a statewide organization active in gentrification and housing issues.

The tenant Silva-Lainez, on the other hand, is self-employed as an electrician, and his wife runs a daycare from their home. The two have been in the Mission since 1991, the year after they entered the United States as refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war. They now have three children, aged 13, 16 and 22, who live with them in the family’s three-bedroom apartment at the corner of 24th and Bryant, the lone unit above an abandoned storefront.

Ana Slavicek, co-chair of the Mission/Bernal Heights ACCE chapter chanting outside a Fong property on York Street. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Ana Slavicek, co-chair of the Mission/Bernal Heights ACCE chapter chanting outside a Fong property on York Street. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Early on, Silva-Lainez and the Fongs had a “very good relationship,” confirmed by both parties. Silva-Lainez even did electrical work at some of the family’s properties. As early as 2006, the Fongs said—and corroborated by ACCE—that Silva-Lainez was told the Fongs wanted the apartment back, but “he would not move,” said Elizabeth Fong.

In 2010, the Fong family tried to evict the Silva-Lainez family for the first time, and Silva-Lainez said that relations have soured since then.

“There’s too much pressure on us,” he said of the experience. “We’re always thinking about when we’re gonna leave. We’re always stressed.”

Silva-Lainez worked with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic to beat his 2010 eviction, partnering with them again to beat a second one in 2011. Fong said they lost the cases because their representative at the time was an “incompetent fly-by-night lawyer.”

For the latest eviction, Silva-Lainez has joined the Mission/Bernal Chapter of ACCE, a community organization that tackles issues brought by its membership—of late, tenants’ rights—to push for direct action against the Fongs.

But the family’s record appears solid. There are no known complaints against any of the Fongs’ other properties in the Mission, nor have they had evictions elsewhere, according to data from the Planning Department and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

“¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” was a frequent chant, along with “Wake up San Francisco!” and “You could be next!” Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Additionally, the Fongs seem to have cordial relations with their other tenants.

“They’ve always been very accommodating,” said Sean Scharf, who lives at the Fongs’ property on Folsom. “We’ve always had a very good relationship,” he said, echoing a statement of Silva-Lainez’s about their earlier relationship.

The Fongs said they have long wanted to develop the property at 2830 24th Street to move in. The family has permits to renovate the building to move in 80-year-old Fong next to her businesses and children. Leona, Evelyn, James and Richard Fong plan on moving their families into the remodeled space, which would be three stories tall and include four units, as well as an elevator for the elderly Fong. “She has trouble getting up the stairs,” said Evelyn, adding that Fong wants to come “full circle” to the building “where it all started” when she herself came to the Mission in the early 1970s.

Those in support of Silva-Lainez, however, don’t buy that argument.

Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project said that though the project goes after the “particularly egregious” cases of speculators who “really abuse” the Ellis Act, other evictions should be opposed too. “The stance of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is that all no-fault evictions should be opposed,” she said. “We find it very important to fight for anybody who finds themselves losing San Francisco as a home.”

(The Ellis Act is a state law that allows landlords to get out of the rental business by evicting an entire building. The Ellised units can be put back on the rental market after five years, but if they’re put back within 10 years, the displaced tenants have right of first refusal. But this should not affect the Fong family, since they say they will be moving in themselves.)

“They’re acting like they’re small business people,” added Buck Bagot, an organizer with ACCE. “But my take is, if you own eight multi-unit buildings in San Francisco, you’re a multi-millionaire. And if they have so many properties, why can’t they find another place for Sergio to stay?”

With eight properties in the Mission, many half residential and half commercial, the Fongs have some 16 residential units in the neighborhood. But they say that there has been almost no significant turnover in the last 10 years. The last tenant to move out left some three years ago.

According to ACCE organizer Julien Ball, Silva-Lainez and the Fongs did work together in the past to find Silva-Lainez a new place, but finding the right apartment was difficult.

“As far as I know, he’s always either asked to stay there, or get a similar place at the same price,” he said. “And where was he gonna find a place that accommodated a family of five under $1,000 a month?”

Evelyn Fong said there was a previous offer to move the Silva-Lainez family to the Fong’s property at 1176 York Street, but the two-bedroom unit was too small for the family of five, and the apartment was turned down.

And now, Evelyn and James say that they are “not obligated” to find him a place, adding that he has had plenty of time to find an apartment, since they told him of their plans to renovate years ago.

“He’s known since 2006 that we wanted the property back,” Evelyn said.

The Fong family said it was advised by Jeff Woo of the law firm Cooper, White and Cooper to pursue an Ellis Act eviction rather than an owner move-in eviction because the latter stipulates that the family must move in within three months or be held in “bad faith.” Since the family could not move in before renovations are completed (which could take up to a year), he said they could be open to “much more litigation.”

Buck Bagot gesturing in support of Sergio during the closing statements outside of the Fong's four properties on the corner of 24th and Bryant, one of them Sergio's apartment. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Buck Bagot gesturing in support of Sergio during the closing statements outside of the Fong’s four properties on the corner of 24th and Bryant, one of them Sergio’s apartment. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

(Cooper, White and Cooper is one of the law firms listed in the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s as representatives for “Dirty Dozen” serial evictors, and were sought because of their “experience with the Ellis Act,” Evelyn said.)

Gullicksen of the SFTU believes that Woo’s reasoning is nonsense and bad counsel. He said that there are no legal ramifications for not moving in within 90 days under an owner move-in eviction, and that the family would actually save tens of thousands of dollars in relocation fees they now have to pay under the Ellis Act, raising suspicion in his eyes as to their true intent.

But for many protesting the Fongs, the real issue is the eviction of a community member.

“Is it reasonable to move [four] separate families into a building, all of whom already have places to live, when Sergio and his family will be out on the street?” Ball said. “He has no place to stay, and they have the resources to do something right.”

Since Silva-Lainez has less he can muster, ACCE and other housing rights groups have taken the helm, pushing direct action as a means to resist Silva-Lainez’s eviction.

“If you stay and fight, you have a good chance of winning,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca from the Housing Rights Committee. “We’ve stopped [evictions] before because the tenants got together and got organized. We can do it again.”

Sergio points towards the Fongs' shop near his apartment, saying that the family has eight properties against his one and can afford to "do the right thing." Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Sergio points towards the Fongs’ shop near his apartment, saying that the family has eight properties against his one and can afford to “do the right thing.” Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Mike Ponce, student and Iraq War veteran, was the most vocal of Silva-Lainez’s supporters, urging the neighborhood to “go out there and march with pride and dignity” because “everybody is affected by this.” Using a megaphone, he also addressed gentrification in the Mission.

“This is a working class neighborhood!” he shouted. “San Francisco has made it impossible to live here. What happened to the middle class? To the blue-collar class? It’s not about drinking organic coffee, it’s about preserving a culture.”

The final stop of the march was Silva-Lainez’s apartment at 2830 24th St., which is flanked by Punjab Restaurant and Five Markets, both owned and run by the Fongs. Here, the group delivered its final certificates to Evelyn Fong herself, who was with her brother James at her grocery store. “We tried to talk to him, but no money would make him move,” Evelyn Fong said later. “The Ellis Act was the only way.”

The protest ended with a statement from Silva-Lainez.

“Gracias a todos por el apoyo,” he said, thanking everyone in Spanish for their support. “I want to thank everybody who’s here to stand up against the Ellis Act and to support me in this. The reason that we’re fighting is that we don’t want to lose our home. They should leave us alone. They can afford to do the right thing and let us stay here in the Mission.”

38 Comments

  1. Sam

    Credit there, Joe, for not jumping on the “Ellis is bad” bandwagon, but rather showing the very human side of this i.e. property owners who simply wants to get their property back so they can live in it.

    That is surely the most fundamental property right there is, which is why OMI, RMI and Ellis evictions are fully valid and just causes for eviction in SF and everywhere else in CA.

    It is disingenuous for Gulllicksen and McElroy to try and argue that all no-fault evictions are wrong because rent control allows them precisely because the entire system of rent control could be deemed unconstitutional if those provisions were not there. The city allows them because they have to by virtue of higher law.

    Some people will oppose such evictions anyway but a much larger group of people state-wide approve of the Ellis Act, and it is State law and the constitution that drives these basic rights.

    Perhaps these tenants should accept that they have had a very good deal for a very long time with a very good landlord, but sometimes you just have to move on.

  2. pete

    Sounds like the Fongs are in the right here. I don’t know how the ACCE is run elsewhere in the state but once again, here in San Francisco, they show themselves as foolhardy going after people who have done no wrong.

  3. Missionite

    Great example of balanced journalism, of laying out the facts and letting the reader, be the judge. Kudos for having the courage to transcend the ‘evil landlord’ script and show that these stories have a lot more nuance and complexity than noisy activists would have one believe.

  4. susan prentice

    what a load of …garbage let’s say … and Mission Local – really ?- poor property owners …the Fong’s own
    many properties … and kicking out tenants just because they can… there is no excuse for greed -Mission Local read your own facts before posting inflammatory headlines

    • Runforthehills

      Sorry, but there’s nothing greedy about wanting to live (or having your family live) in your own building.

      • susan prentice

        owning 8 multi-unit buildings and insisting on kicking out a family of five is greed in my book

    • Missionite

      Insisting on paying 1991 rent and not a penny more is also greedy. Don’t get me wrong, I’d play every trick in the book to try to keep that gravy train going too, but with 4 years notice and a hefty buyout to move into their own property? Renting is not a long term housing solution, despite what advocates would have you believe.

  5. Ben

    Gross. I’ve lived in a building managed by Fong and she was nothing but a sweet, generous landlord.

    Progressives or conservative, if you see the world in heroes and villains, it’s time to step into the moral complexities of the real world.

  6. D. Reed

    The tenant activists are taking an extremely unrealistic position in this case. By doing so, they undermine other, more legitimate claims of speculator abuse.

    Despite what Housing Rights Committee’s spokesman says, property owners almost always prevail, particularly if they intend to live in their property. Also, the Fong family was willing to give Silva-Lainez a substantial buyout as compensation, but their offer was refused.

    • lol: Our policy is two comments. Best, Lydia

      • Mike K

        I would bet money that this guy is an unlicensed and uninsured electrician doing work as a contractor. Probably also has a few under the table workers and claims no workers comp. Its scam artists like this who give a bad name to real people.

        • Sam

          Unlicensed contractors can do work in California as long as the total value of the work does not exceed $500.

          This is typically got around by breaking a large job up into smaller components, each of which costs less than $500.

  7. Paul

    The activists are responsible for this situation developing in the first place – they gamed the free market/democratic system with rent control, then they encouraged people to build a life of dependency on a free government good with false assurances that it would never end. Property owners should have a right to control their property, lifetime leases with no significant rent increases are simply not fair.

    • Sam

      These tenant activists stop short of actually saying this but what they are really saying when they oppose all no-fault evictions is that they do not believe in any property rights for owners.

      Because at the heart of all the no-fault eviction types is a fundamental right, specifically to live in your own home, to merge, demolish or improve your property, to have a relative live with you in the same building, or to condo convert. (I may have missed a no-fault eviction there but that is most of them).

      While Ellis specifically exists to ensure that an owner can never be compelled to be in the rental business if he or she elects to no longer do that.

      What these activists really want is to enforce any owner to permanently and perpetually rent out their homes to long-term, controlled tenants forever. IOW, they don’t think that an owner has any rights.

      Luckily our constitution and our laws say that we cannot be so compelled.

    • lol

      Yup. This is situation where the tenants should have sheltered themselves by either moving to a lower cost area or by purchasing their own home (a novel concept, I know).

      Does this family deserve to be in SF? Does the fact that they are already in SF grant them lifetime residency? Why wouldn’t an other couple say from Stockton or Merced deserve a LESS THAN ONE THOUSAND DOLLAR in rent?

      You owe it to your kids to plan ahead and prepare for contingencies. Of course Most San Franciscans are living a sheltered life at someone else’s expense. The gravy train has run its course.

      • Russo

        “Of course Most San Franciscans are living a sheltered life at someone else’s expense.”

        Well, no, most San Franciscans are renters. The minority landlords are living at the tenants’ expense. The tenants work, the landlords get the money. An obvious fact frequently overlooked.

        • mission reseident

          Russo, your comment is just plain stupid and ignorant. A landlord has to work to get a down payment and then risk all that money in hopes of making a profit. If the landlord didn’t buy the building, you wouldn’t have a place to rent. Better yet, let’s get rid of landlords and make everyone purchase their own home. Ia that what you prefer? Can you think outside your tiny little bubble?

        • mission reseident

          Landlords didn’t get bailed out, banks did. Most landlords took a huge beating in the downturn as they took the risk that the property would go up in value. When the housing market bombed, they lost a ton of money. Do you even understand what an investment is? In order to make money, you need to rick something for possibility of a future reward. Bigger the risk, bigger the reward.

          If there is no risk, why don’t you put your money where you mouth is?

    • two beers

      “– they gamed the free market/democratic system with rent control, then they encouraged people to build a life of dependency on a free government good with false assurances that it would never end”

      Right, all renters live a life of dependency on free government.

      The landlord property-pirates are the true freeloaders.

      • SFrentier

        “Right, all renters live a life of dependency on free government.”

        No, just the ones that depend on rent control to give them cheap rent for the rest of their lives.

    • Peter

      Did property-rights activists not also “game the free market/democratic system” with Prop 13 that restricts property valuation and thus local public funding, and “then they encouraged people to build a life of dependency on a free government good with false assurances that it would never end”…? The anti-rent control critique is full of hypocrisies.

      • reggio

        Peter,
        Prop 13 only affects property taxes that are less then 10% of the yearly ownership costs for a property. Rent control affects over 90% of a renters housing costs. How is that ever seen as being equal or anywhere comparable!! That argument is old, tired and just plain wrong.

  8. Bob

    If the rent don’t fit, you must evict.

  9. lol

    Wait, they’re trying to house 5 people for… less than $1000?

    In San Francisco? You can’t even do this in Oakland or even Concord. Maybe in Taft?

    This is the problem right there. cheap rent is THE anomaly, not the norm.

  10. sonic

    Correction: Once the tenants are gone, the landlord cannot rent units out for 5 years, not 10 as it says in the article. http://www.sftu.org/ellis.html

  11. Tim Bracken

    “And the focus on the Fongs raises the question: Is it ever just to pursue a no-fault eviction? Ted Gullicksen from the San Francisco Tenants’ Union (SFTU), says no.”

    Translated: as long as you pay your rent, you have a right to remain in your apartment for the rest of your life.

    I’m a lefty who’s very worried about vulnerable tenants being exploited for a quick buck, but even I find such an absolute stance extreme.

    By way of example, what if the landlord is retired, and has no income except for some Social Security assistance and the rent-controlled rent check she gets from her tenant? Assuming further that the tenant makes a good living, is Mr. Gullicksen really saying that the tenant has greater rights to the home than the property owner herself? That this property owner, who has less income than the tenant himself, cannot move into her own property?

    This sort of oversimplified radicalism ignores the complexities of reality and undermines the laudable work being done by the SFTU.

  12. Sarah Harper

    There is no good reason for a no-fault eviction. Landlords who evict without just cause under any premise are NOT “good landlords”, even if they’ve had positive relations with the tenants. A landlord’s decision to evict sours the relationship, and the landlord’s character, from that point forward. The class struggle persists, and tenants should not be made to look unreasonable for wanting and needing to keep their homes and community. Our city is dying and the property owning class needs to be held accountable.

    • Bob Evans

      Our city is not dying, it’s actually blooming. It’s just your cheap subsidized rent that is dying….

      • two beers

        Actually, the “boom” is the direct consequence of the excess liquidity (trillions of dollars) the Fed has poured into Wall St. The only thing “growing” is inequality. This is a great time to be a freeloading money/property pirate, but for people who actually make things and provide real services (i.e. people who are not in the vampire Finance-Insurance-Real Estate racket), these are hard times. T

        Take your easy-money, speculation-spigot away, and all you tinhorn John Galt’s would be under the freeway, trying to rent out your cardboard box to someone even worse off than you.

        The FIRE welfare state must end.

  13. SFrentier

    Yup, balanced coverage. A rarity in this city. Good job!

  14. Richard Kuo

    Thank you for posting a balanced article.

  15. Bob Evans

    Why should renters have more rights to a property than owners? It’s an only in San Francisco sentiment, concocted by mobs of rent controlled tennants with pitch forks. PROPERTY RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS !

  16. Schlub

    The Fongs are hard working people who give back to our community. They’ve obviously worked hard to save up and purchase buildings here – the American dream.

    They’re excellent landlords, they maintain their buildings; they’ve opened a new, small and affordable natural food store which they work in. When their video store/post office was open, it provided a really valuable resource for folks living at that end of 24th.

    I’m not sure why these renters are feeling like victims. It sounds like they’ve had plenty of opportunities, for many years now, to find another option for where to move their family to, and that the landlord has been supportive and as helpful as they can be. The renters on the other hand have chosen a path to become dependents, and comes a time when they have to face leaving the nest.

  17. MMathers

    I’m not sure i understand this comment
    “But for many protesting the Fongs, the real issue is the eviction of a community member.”

    Why aren’t the Fongs considered community members? From the facts laid out in this article, it sounds like the matriarch has been in the Mission since the 70s and still runs a small business in the neighborhood. They also sound like a good old american rags to riches story about how they have built up a decent property portfolio through hard work and savings.

    This isn’t about money coming in from China
    This isn’t about money coming in from wall street.

    It’s about some people worried that the hispanic working class culture of the neighborhood is changing into something more affluent. Tough titties.

    Do you see any folks of Irish descent still bemoaning the conversion of their Eureka Valley neighborhood into what is now the Castro?

    Like it or not, things change. This family knew that the submarket rent of $1K for a 3 bedroom was going to change.These folks had 8 years to put themselves on BMR lists and save their pennies to buy their own piece of the American dream. Sadly, they didn’t but that’s not the Fongs’ problem.
    -mm

  18. medalist

    “and his wife runs a daycare from their home.” Child care licensing requirements are very stiff. I’m curious if she complies with state and local law and if her lease allows her to run a business from the home. Most leases do not allow commercial usage in a residential space, considering in day care businesses were the liability for can be high.

  19. James Fong

    TO: SF ACCE ORGANIZERS – JULIEN BALL & BUCK BAGOT — Doctor check up for 80 year old mother Leona Fong to make sure her health and well being is not compromised due to all the stress/mental pressure, intimidation tactics and defamation of the Fong’s business PunJab Restaurant and Five Markets in the Mission from SF ACCE and their supporters for “Eviction of Sergio Lainez.” Please stop harassing my family. We are the ones being victimized. All mother wants is to live in the house she rightfully owns! — at Dr.Nicholas Jew.

Comments are closed.