Of all Mission’s graffiti, none likely appear with as much ubiquity than the stencils of a wheeled suitcase inscribed with the words, “Tenants Here Forced Out.”
Always strategically placed, the suitcase stencils materialize on the pavement in front of a building that enacted an Ellis Act eviction — one in which the owner evicts all tenants to then generally sell it.
Mission Local recently sat down with two anti-eviction movement leaders: Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, and Rebecca Gourevitch of Eviction-Free San Francisco to learn about the suitcase stencils and how grassroots today are fighting displacement in the Bay Area.
Mission Local: What is the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project?
Erin McElroy: It’s a collective of people working together to map the evictions and displacement that San Francisco residents are experiencing and the ways that dispossession are being enacted.
ML: How many people are in the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project?
EM: There are about six of us — all volunteers.
ML: So, I’ve been seeing a lot of these pavement stencils around the city. How many stencils are in the Mission District?
EM: I would imagine there are 15-20 stencils.
ML: When did the stenciling begin?
EM: January of this year.
ML: How many people go out to do stencils?
EM: Two or three at a time.
ML: Is it at nighttime?
EM: Always at nighttime.
ML: How do you place them?
EM: I don’t actually place them, but I work with other folks to design the stencils. The stencilers place them. They use an Exacto knife on a posterboard or for more refined stencils, use a community laser-cutter to be able to mass produce.
ML: How did you come up with the stencil design?
EM: It was a collaborative effort. I worked with a few other artists and activists. We were trying to figure out something that would be powerful and get the message across.
The stencil says, “Tenants Here Forced Out.” We actually created different luggage tags, which the stencilers will be using in the future to distinguish other kinds of evictions.
ML: But at this point, all the suitcase stencils represent Ellis Act evictions?
EM: Yes, the stencils are all Ellis Act evictions.
ML: Why use this type of campaign?
EM: One of the ways gentrification functions is by forgetting and by “invisiblizing” those who are displaced, who the displacer is, and normalizing it.
Similar to our map, we want this project to “visiblize” what’s happening, make it palpable and document the stories behind the evictions.
It’s one thing to know that there have been close to 3,700 units displaced by the Ellis Act since 1997, but it’s quite another when you’re actually confronted with it on the street.
The stencils should inspire people to stop and wonder.
ML: So, by placing a visual in front of people, you hope more folks will have a discussion about Ellis Act evictions?
Rebecca Gourevitch: Exactly. Ellis Act evictions and housing are already a hot topic in the city right now, but there are still people who have checked out of the whole thing; it doesn’t really affect them. The stencils are great because walking around, you see them, you’re suddenly curious, and you want to know happened to the building and the history behind it. It might cause people to look online or read articles about the families that have been affected.
ML: Would you say the stenciling has been effective?
EM: It seems to be effective. I think it’s been a part of a larger organized movement. What we’re doing with stenciling is bringing something representative to the real.
RG: We’ve gotten media attention with our map and an increase in attendance at our meetings. Local government is noticing the issue, too.
It’s great to see the response that we’ve received from our direct action campaigns, such as Eviction-Free San Francisco and the stenciling — they’re just different pieces working together in a larger puzzle.
ML: Can you give me an example of local government getting involved?
EM: Supervisor David Campos and Supervisor John Avalos have come out as great supporters. Campos has attended a number of rallies and spoken eloquently and powerfully, and doesn’t seem to be hiding his opinion at all.
RG: [Campos] is working on different tenant legislation and working with groups in the city.
ML: The numbers show that there have been more Owner Move-In evictions filed than Ellis Act evictions. Why give more attention to the latter?
EM: There are three kinds of no-fault evictions: Owner Move-In, Demolition and Ellis Act. The most insidious is the Ellis Act, which can evict multiple units — the difference isn’t quite as traumatic as it might seem if you just look at the petition numbers. An OMI evicts a single unit, but there could be an Ellis Act that evicts 20 units in a building.
The Ellis Act is a state law that allows landlords to go out of business. There’s a 10-year moratorium on converting apartments into condos. So what some landlords do is convert properties to a tenancy in common (TIC). This essentially “condoizes” them so speculators can clear out tenants for this purpose and allow many owners to move in. TICs are also becoming less risky for owners because some banks are willing to do fractional loans instead of a joint mortgage for the whole building.
ML: How does your group verify each location is an Ellis Act eviction?
EM: Our primary sources in investigating evictions are the databases from San Francisco Planning Department, Tenderloin Housing Clinic and San Francisco Rent Board. We also used state-assessor data, city county data and Corporate Wiki.
ML: Is it hard to research with owners often selling from LLC to LLC?
EM: Yeah, it’s so messy. It’s been going on for a while, but it’s risen exponentially in the last few years. We’ve spent multiple hours just trying to figure out one LLC.
What we’re finding with Urban Green, a real estate investment firm, is that they have five different properties and the tenants in each property are paying their rent checks to a different LLC, but they’re all funneled to the same company.
For example, you can find out the company is Urban Green, but not know who the person is, but we’ve done our research and it’s this guy, David McCloskey. Urban Green issued Ellis Act evictions for all tenants in their five buildings. What Urban Green will most likely do (though who knows for sure) is sell them individually as TICs for a lot of money.
One of Urban Green’s buildings being evicted is at 55 Dolores street, and there’s this 97-year-old woman, Mary Elizabeth Phillips, who is being evicted on her 98th birthday. It’s unbelievable.
ML: What’s up next for the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project?
EM: This month, we released a map showing all three types of evictions (OMIs, Demolition and Ellis Act). We also released a second map displaying evictions against seniors and those with disabilities, including the names of the landlord for each property.
ML: What is your hopeful outcome?
EM: We’re trying to get community involved, but as far as policy goes, it would be pretty amazing to overturn the Ellis Act in Sacramento. There’s a lot of Ellis Act reform legislation being talked about at City Hall.
A year ago, I would have imagined it would take 10 years of coalition building, but now it seems something like that would be feasible in the near future. It’s hard to do, but it’s becoming more of a possibility.