Jack Halprin's house at 812 Guerrero Street in the Mission District.

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.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. It’s not society’s problem that you chose to live in an expensive part of the country. You made those decisions on your own, and it’s nobody else’s fault that you can’t afford to purchase a home wherever you feel that you’re entitled to live. “Pro-tenant activists” is quite a sad form of activism. Just entitled little brats who don’t want to assume the responsibility of owning a home but want the advantages of living where that home is located.

  2. I own a 1 br mission apt that i would like to rent out because i need to relicate for work. Would love to hang onto the place for retirement but i will just sell as anyone i lease to will get a form permanent rights to my place conferred upon them via rent control and all of the regulations around that. I would feel so threatened that I could lose my retirement nest egg via a future lawsuit by a vicious “tenant rights” lawyer. A guy I work with has a unit in the sunset he currently rents and is planning to evict and sell due to likely expansion of rent control that would result from repeal of contra hawkins. These “progressive” politicians are making the lack of housing situation way worse but all they really care about is signalling virtue and getting reelected (right hillary ronnen?)

    1. While I appreciate your desire to keep your Mission rental for your nest egg, neighborhoods are so much better with people who own and live in them. People take care of their investments. So please do sell your condo to someone who will live there and be a great neighbor.

  3. Sam here thinks every family will have the ability to buy a home, when in fact many many people never do, and rent. This does not mean our rentals are not our home. I have lived in a rental for nearly 30 years. I have painted the entire flat 3 times, spent a fortune over the years caring for the backyard, pay my rent on time, and thus far I have paid the landlord over $50k.
    Greedy people think the only use for a property is to make every dime possible. They care not that they are providing homes for families. They need to feel some Karma.

    1. You’ve paid $50,000 in rent in 30 years and feel that is Fair Market Value. Congrats, you’ve robbed your landlord blind, but call them greedy, when you have profited more than 10 fold

  4. The selfish San Francisco narrative that tenants have a right to stay forever is what is sad. The facts say other wise, lookup RENTING in the dictionary. They say it means the temporary use of something. Do you look at this travesty of tenant selfishness and still wonder why people Ellis act ? Why did the damn tenants not buy the building when it was for sale? Ownership means something, just like no, means no. Rent control really is non consensual economic rape.