Google executive’s heirs have re-evoked the dreaded Ellis Act

Evan Wolkenstein has a lot on his mind these days. In a very San Franciscan touch, the high school teacher has, at age 44, just had his first child. And, in what is also a very San Franciscan touch, he is consumed with existential angst about where he and his wife will be raising this child.

That’s a worry for so many burgeoning San Francisco families. But, as of June 1, the landlord of the building he’s lived in since arriving here 14 years ago ceased accepting Wolkenstein’s rent checks. The next step is an eviction notice. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“All of my friends who are teachers who have had to move for one reason or another have been displaced from this city,” he says. “I’m talking about a dozen people. Without exception.”

Well, there is one exception: Him. For now. And so Evan Wolkenstein has a lot on his mind these days.

And so do we all. It’s San Francisco in 2018, and his story is ubiquitous; it’s akin to a magician pulling a rabbit out of a rabbit hutch. But Wolkenstein’s story is more than ubiquitous: If you presented it as a work of fiction, you’d be accused of being too on-the-nose, too broad, too uncreative. And that’s because he’s a former Jack Halprin tenant.

Halprin, you may recall, was the Google attorney and executive who, in 2014, triggered worldwide coverage when he attempted to use the Ellis Act to evict a platoon of tenants — among them a grade-school teacher, a high-school teacher, and an aging disabled woman — from his 812 Guerrero Street home.

Well, this story had everything: Wealthy tech executive attempting to put teachers and disabled people onto the street in a cartoonishly callous act of gentrification (Halprin had earlier been sued by a former tenant for an alleged illegal owner move-in, after she was made to leave her unit so Halprin’s domestic partner could ostensibly reside there — but he never did, and that unit was then merged with Halprin’s own to create a mega-unit. That case settled out of court for between $200,000 and $400,000, per attorney Joe Tobener).

In 2013, organizer and performance artist Max Bell Alper pretended to be a Google employee; during a Google bus protest, he hopped off the stairway of a blockaded tech shuttle and shouted, “You can’t pay your rent? I’m sorry. Get a better job. … This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can’t afford it? You can leave.”

Well, that’s really happening — you can look up the cold, hard statistics — which is why it was baffling that any pro-tenant or pro-worker activist felt it’d be useful to make this point by lying to everyone and punking the media. Why be disingenuous when the plain truth is so damning? And, just over a year to the day after Alper’s subterfuge, Mission Local’s Lydia Chavez watched Halprin — the flesh-and-blood incarnation of Alper’s agitprop caricature — provacatively wade into a pre-dawn Google bus protest, before loping back home to the building where he was attempting to evict everyone with a couple of sign-waving demonstrators in pursuit.

And then, in 2015, Halprin abruptly died, at just age 46. And, for those who weren’t his friends or family or residing in his former property, the story ended.

But it didn’t end. Because in June of last year, his surviving family quietly re-filed an Ellis Act eviction. And the one-year Get-Out-of-Dodge date lapsed in June 2018. No eviction papers have been filed but, since the rent checks are now being returned, it’s just a matter of time.

And so, Evan Wolkenstein has a lot on his mind these days.

Counter-intuitively for a man of means (and a lawyer), Jack Halprin died without a will. The multi-unit home Halprin obtained in 2012 for the artificially low price of $1.475 million — its gaggle of rent-controlled tenants was factored into that price — passed to his septuagenarian mother in Connecticut. Multiple calls to Gail Halprin were not returned.

So it remains unclear why she’s chosen to go this route rather than, as her tenants’ attorney Steve Collier would have liked, selling the building to a nonprofit — or simply selling a gorgeous home with several empty residential units on the open market for a metric shitload of money.

Collier beat back Jack Halprin’s first attempt at an Ellis Act eviction, convincing a judge that the landlord’s failure to properly deliver the required payments of the first half of a relocation fee invalidated the proceedings. That won’t happen again; the plaintiffs didn’t make the same mistake twice.

So, it’s back to the mattresses. Collier won’t disclose his tactics, but he assures us he has them. But, even if he didn’t, fighting an eviction is often an end in and of itself. Even if the tenants ultimately fail in this case, they’ve bought themselves four years and counting of existence in San Francisco.

In the meantime, Collier, who has spent the last 31 years as a San Francisco tenants’ attorney, emphasizes how commonplace this sort of action is. Perhaps that’s understating it: When we called up a tenants’ rights activist to ask how normal it is for landlords to buy up rent-controlled properties at low prices and then push everyone out of the building, she told us she had to step outside to take our call — she was busy attending a seminar about landlords buying up rent-controlled properties at low prices and pushing everyone out of the building.

Halprin was purported to wander through the Guerrero Street building with his realtor and — within earshot of his besieged tenants — talk about his future plans for their current homes. That was unsubtle. But nobody wanted things to turn out like they did. And, in the end, Halprin’s untimely death may do little to change his tenants’ plights.

“We’re all just kind of hoping things will get better,” notes Wolkenstein. “But there’s no reason for us to believe that they will.”

Well that’s sad. And ubiquitous. And that’s sad, too.