Tenants Call for End to Ellis Act

A child listens to tenants speak at a protest against the Ellis Act.

Roberto Alfaro Sr., 67, has lived in his Mission District apartment at 164 Lucky St. for 27 years. Ana Gutierrez, 66, has lived in the unit next door for 34 years. Both are retired, disabled and living on a fixed income. These are the only San Francisco apartments they have ever known.

Last month, they were told they were being evicted under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to take rental units off the market.

“I raised all my kids in that place,” said Gutierrez, who lives in the apartment with her two sons. “I’ve been there ever since I came to San Francisco.”

“We don’t know what to do,” she added.

Alfaro and Gutierrez were among dozens of people who gathered beneath the Christmas tree at 18th and Castro streets on Wednesday to protest Ellis Act evictions. Carrying signs in English and Spanish that read “Happy Holidays. Now get the hell out,” the protesters called on state legislators to repeal the Ellis Act and for local politicians to lend their support.

No landlords were present at the protest.

Tenants in at least 17 buildings in the Mission have gotten eviction notices under the Ellis Act over the last few months, said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of the counseling program at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

To evict residents under the Ellis Act, landlords must inform their tenants 120 days in advance or a year in advance if the tenants are seniors or disabled. They must also pay tenants a $5,157.27 relocation cost — $8,595.44 if the tenants are seniors or disabled. The unit must then remain vacant for five years.

In some cases loopholes fail to protect the most defenseless tenants, said Lucia Kimble, lead San Francisco organizer for the Mission-based tenant advocacy group Causa Justa. She told of a Mission resident who is on the verge of being evicted from the home on Capp Street where he has lived for over 30 years. He is a senior with a long-term illness, which under the Ellis Act typically would mean that he must be given a full year to vacate his apartment. But this tenant will have to leave within 120 days because his apartment is registered as a single-family home and thus exempt from additional protections.

Kimble called for loopholes like these to be addressed by the state immediately.

Ellis Act evictions usually affect the most vulnerable tenants in San Francisco, Mecca said, including seniors, tenants with disabilities and immigrants who cannot afford San Francisco’s increasingly expensive rental market if they are forced out of their rent-controlled apartments.

Among them is Morning Star Vancil, a disabled veteran who has lived on Valencia Street for 32 years. She is a survivor of stage-four cancer and her doctors are based in San Francisco. But her landlord is threatening to evict her under the Ellis Act and Vancil doesn’t think she can afford another apartment in the city.

“By the time I pay my rent, I’m barely making enough to buy food and stuff I need to survive,” Vancil said.

It costs $2,126 a month on average to rent a studio apartment in San Francisco, an increase of 22 percent since 2008. This gives landlords who want to boost their rental revenues an incentive to evict residents under the Ellis Act, Mecca said.

“Are we going to let profits continue to be held over people’s lives?” asked Kimble.

“No!” responded the crowd of tenants and supporters in unison.

Lotta Garrity, who lives on Guerrero Street, said the Ellis Act allows landlords to rent to rich Silicon Valley employees while forcing out the tenants who work in San Francisco.

“We are going to provide housing for them, not for the workers of this town,” Garrity said. “The workers of this town can go live in Hayward in a trailer. Well, I say the heck with that.”

Garrity, a retired nurse and cancer survivor, has lived in her apartment for over 30 years. Her Christmas gift this year was an eviction notice, she said.

“I really feel it is a kick in the face to someone who has served the community all these years,” she said.

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  1. Johnny

    I have been both a tenant and a property owner in SF and I tend to think the Ellis Act provides a measure of fairness to the tenant-favoring SF Rent Control Ordinance.

    When did the definition of tenant take on the meaning of property owner? What a world! I’m sure many of those who have lived in The City longer are thinking: “Thats SF buddy”, but I fail to be convinced. Renters are bound by a contract with a Landlord who is bound by an infinite tax by the government. Why should the Tenant be allowed to stay if the Landlord can’t make the same claim with SF and CA tax board?

    While we are on it, lets hash this other bit out since the article brought it up: isn’t the bit about “rich Silicon Valley employees” displacing the established character of the Mission getting a bit tired? I think the Mission has been going through its latest incarnation for the last 10+ years? Some of the “rich Silicon Valley employees” moving in have survived cancer too. I know many. I sympathize with the illnesses, but not with the bad planning of the evicted tenants.

    These landlords are using one of the few landlord-eviction features of the SF Rent Control ordinance that was adopted in 1979. As a penalty for the eviction, the landlord will be giving up 5 years of income on the unit in addition to the moving expenses for each listed tenant and various other things the Rent Board will tack-on. The evicted tenants should use a little of the eviction penalty winnings to hire a financial planner so they don’t end up in this mess again.

    Oh also, and not to be a total buzz-kill, but the tenants who are evicted might need to pay taxes on that eviction penalty winnings as well so don’t spend it all right away.

    • Christine

      Exactly. The Ellis Act is extremely generous in its terms, and it would be absolutely absurd to overturn it. Why should anyone be entitled to rent an apartment indefinitely, no matter what the property owner’s wish is? I support tenant rights as much as anyone else, but in the end the *owner* of the property should be allowed to do what he wants with it.

      It sucks that people are being evicted, and that people can’t afford to live in the city they’ve been in for a long time, but when it comes down to it that’s just the basic rules of capitalism. And I really can’t see moving to Hayward being as bad as they make it out to be – living somewhere you can afford always beats living someplace you can’t.

  2. Ray

    The City must work toward a housing assistance system similar to Section 8, which targets those in need (seniors, the disabled, the working poor) that is supported (i.e., paid for) by all city residents. The current system, which places the responsibility to provide lifelong housing on individual, private property owners, is inherently unsustainable. Best of luck to those who have lost their homes.

  3. Alabama St.

    First I’ll say that it is a bummer to be evicted. With that out of the way, what exactly is it that people are expecting? The owner of the building wants to sell it, and is completely within his/her rights to do so. I think getting 120 days to 1 year notice, plus $5k to $8k to move is absolutely reasonable. The tenant-centric laws in San Francisco make me wonder why anyone would ever want to become a landlord.

  4. Reginold

    Ellis act will never be overturned. The state can’t dictate that you remain in the rental business if you choose not to be, just because you own a building.

  5. LB

    We send so much aid overseas, yet cannot seem to be able to provide our own citizens with basic, clean, and affordable shelter.

  6. Old Mission Neighbor

    There are renters right? They don’t own the building, they are renting a piece of it. Why should they “own” the landlord, who owns the building and what the landlord can do with the building?

    Sometimes, it’s just tough mittens. The Ellis Act is already too generous.

  7. jls

    It’s truly overwhelming to see the never-ending battle that tenants as well as businesses are facing in SF.
    In addition to skyrocketing housing costs, countless beloved businesses are closing up shop due to landlords doubling and even tripling rent.

    I’m curious if people know of businesses and merchants associations organizing together against landlords who are spiking rents.

    The latest long-running business to closest Currents bath/aromatherapy shop at 911 Valencia St. It’s landlord is tripling the rent and forcing them to leave after 15 years.

    What community resources are out there?
    Is there any legislation that folks can support to address the negative community impacts of such evictions?

    Of course we live in a free-market where this is the name of the game. But community organizing and public policy has a role to play as well.

    The Mission’s bookstores are facing eviction:

    The Mission’s restaurants can’t keep up with spiking rents:

    As others have already been evicted:

  8. Sal Levinson

    Since when is it wrong to make a profit? That is why people start a business, and that is why they stay in business. Grocery stores make a profit on food. Clothing stores make a profit on clothes. If people want to take profit out of the equations, then maybe government subsidized housing is the answer. Why should landlords subsidize renters, especially when the renters may make more money than the landlord? A government agency, funded by taxpayers, should be helping those in need. We don’t expect grocery stores to feed the hungry. No, needy people get food stamps. Well, how about housing stamps? That would make a lot more sense than rent control and the Ellis Act.

  9. James

    San Francisco is predominantly rented city. The issue is families and seniors arr getting kicked out of their homes and not being able to afford to live anywhere remotely safe. But according to these comments I should feel bad for the property owners who want to kick people out on the street? Is that a joke? These are people’s homes…Reading comments makes me see how many people have their moral compass royally screwed up. Take a look through someone else’s eyes, who hasn’t had the privileged life you have.

    • SF Resident

      The Mission Economic Development Agency just received $30 Million. Hopefully some of that money will benefit their Homeownership program, which helps low to moderate income people. It is a tragedy that San Franciscans have near the lowest homeownership rates in the country, and no amount of moralizing will change the fundamental difference between owning and renting.

  10. AW

    For all those comments that support profit over human lives let me put it to you simply. This democracy is built on the notion that all classes, ethic, religious, creed, and nationalities that contribute to the nations economy and are born or swear to up hold the law of the land and are given the basic human rights: Food, Clothing,and Shelter that they obtain through working, or public assistance. Now, the use of the Ellis Act (flaws and all) to eliminate the long term renter for profit is not the proper use of the law. If you do not intend to be a landlord but, have bought a property with the intent to flip it for profit then you are not a landlord! You are a speculator preying on senior property owners or the heirs to obtain properties with long term residents. And using the argument to buy the property at below the market value because the rents are low does not make you a landlord (the key word is intent). Especially when you will not honor the landlord/tenant contract by not making timely repairs (or ignoring repair requests), not allowing the tenants to live in peace while you show their apartments to prospective buyers. Whether open house events or by appointment, your home, your peace of mind, is greatly disrupted by the realistic fear that you can be uprooted from a 5-30 year residency in 120 days when ever the new owner decides it is profitable to sell your unit. That wasn’t the meaning of the Ellis Act. And it’s certainly not a business plan for hard-nose realtors and speculators to make profits by dismantling the rent stabilized leasing community. SF is wonderful because of it’s diversity, cultural, and historic values. During this limping period of a badly damaged economy, profit making businesses are only offering temporary or low wage jobs as part-time positions for those folks who don’t work in silicone valley. Yet these workers have great experience in their chosen field and the mid – large scale corporations deny these workers fair wages while driving up the commercial market rates that pushing out local businesses because they can’t compete with sky-rocketing rents. These two actions, eliminating long-term renters and ridiculous commercial leasing rates lower the actual income of the community. Leaving it open to more fiscal collapses in the future. The transient professional worker will only commit to the income earned not the community of which they reside in at the time. They will probably run away at the next earthquake. Leaving buildings empty regardless of the high rents that were paid. The TIC’s or condo units will also suffer while completing the maze of paper work to repair the property damages. History has shown us time and a again that it takes a community, committed to making San Francisco their home, that has and will stay to rebuild. Profit can not and will not run San Francisco’s government. The public of which it serves determines that with their ballots. And both sides of the issue will be debated publicly this January. Come, listen, discuss and demand fairness! After all your taxes are paying for it.

  11. Be_Fair

    From my understanding, the Ellis Act is too harsh to landlords. Why do the landlord need to pay $5000-8000 for each tenant when the landlord wants to take back the property? Rental lease is a term contract, how can the renter expect to remain in the property forever? It does not make a bit of sense. It is renter’s responsibility to keep track of market and plan for their own life accordingly.

    There are so many cities in USA. SF is a strange place where property owners do not have the appropriate property rights.

    Is the rent control regulations really constitutional? Seems to me that rent control regulations violate the owner’s property rights.

    I think that the rent control regulation should be repealed. If I am a politician, I will rally the people who have a common sense and who is fair, to appeal the rent control and return the property rights back to owners.

    I know many young people who would like to live in SF to be close to their jobs, but can not afford to do so. The current market rent is higher than it should be because so many units are controlled by long term tenants with a very low rent. It makes sense to let the market to determine who should live in the city. It is better to have workers live in SF to be close to their job.

    It will be a disaster for SF as a city if all the rental units are occupied by long term tenants at unreasonably low rent. That will drive away jobs since commute time is a major consideration for workers. All the new people will have to live outside of the city. Without new blood, the city will go down for good.

    To save San Francisco from economic disaster, let’s repeal rent control.

  12. Be_Fair

    Here is a story showing the absurdity of the rent control in San Francisco. It shows how an unfair regulation can distort the market and waste the precious resource for the city.

    Fighting for a $291 Apartment, With a $747-Per-Month Last Resort


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