Protesters gather in front of 3661 19th St., where building owners are using the Ellis Act to evict long term tenants. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

Paul Mooney first moved to San Francisco in search of a community, knowing that the city was a safe and welcoming place for gay men like himself. He found a home next to Dolores Park, where he’s lived for 18 years. 

But the past few years have proven challenging. 

First, his building on 19th Street was sold to new owners in 2018. Within months, the new owners attempted to evict him and his fellow tenants, including several other long-term LGBT, senior and Asian American residents. 

While the tenants managed to fight off that first eviction attempt, another eviction notice came their way in October, 2020, when the landlord used the Ellis Act, a 1985 California state law that allows property owners to evict residential tenants and remove the building from the rental market. 

On a cloudy recent Monday, tenants, public officials, and supporters gathered, spilling into the street in front of the large gray building, chanting and cheering and carrying signs. They made it clear they would not go easily. 

“We want the owners to know that we’re here, we’re organized and we’re not going anywhere,” said Mooney, speaking at the rally of about 50 people in front of his 12-unit building on Monday, reminding anyone listening that they were long-term tenants and prepared to fight the Ellis Act notices. 

He has a point. Tenants who know their rights and band together to fight their evictions have a much higher likelihood of keeping their homes. 

“Most of the time in San Francisco, if your building goes up for sale and tenants stick together in that building, those tenants get to stay,” said Sarah “Fred” Sherburn-Zimmer of the Housing Rights Committee, which counsels and organizes tenants facing eviction. 

Lauren Montana Swigger, who attended the protest with her drum to perform with the Brass Liberation Orchestra, said the cause hit close to home for her. In 2013, she and her 12-year-old daughter were evicted from their home on San Carlos Street after their landlord convinced her he was moving into the unit himself — an owner move-in eviction. 

“We didn’t know any better,” Swigger said. Once she had accepted a “crappy” buyout and was forced to leave town, she realized that the owner never intended to move into the building. 

The disability status of some at 3661 19th St. allowed the tenants to get a one-year extension on the eviction, per Ellis Act specifications. But that year is up, and the landlords aren’t backing down: In late October, 2021, the building’s owners began filing unlawful detainer suits against some of the tenants who have refused to leave. No one in the building has accepted a buyout, Mooney said.  

The landlords of 3661 19th St., or “out-of-town speculators” as the speakers at Monday’s rally called them, aren’t new to evictions. Tenants complained that the building owners are actively displacing residents in other buildings, all to make a quick buck. 

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who spoke during Monday’s rally, called District 8 “ground zero” when it comes to Ellis Act and owner-move-in evictions. Mandelman called for a repeal of the Ellis Act, referring to speculation and ensuing evictions as “a cancer on this city.” 

The building is owned by 3661 19th Street LLC and VR Investments LLC. The former is owned by trusts in the names of Jeff Pollack, Edith Wong, and Pierre and Tracy Malak. The latter is owned by Ryan C. Fong’s living trust. 

Pollack and Wong have issued Ellis Act evictions at their buildings on Albion and Natoma streets as well, according to Mooney.

The Malaks, meanwhile, have already converted three of the five units at their building at 672 Castro St. to TIC’s, or tenancies-in-common. Tenants at the remaining two units have received Ellis Act notices.

Eviction notices decreased during the

pandemic – but they never stopped.

Eviction notices

180

Reason for notice

160

Capital improvement

Non-payment of bills

140

Ellis Act withdrawal

Owner moves in

Breach of contract

120

Nuisance

Other

100

Mar. 1st 2020: protection

from non-payment

evictions begins.

80

60

40

20

0

Jan

Apr

July

Oct

Jan

Apr

July

Oct

Jan

Apr

July

2019

2020

2021

Date

Eviction notices decreased

during the pandemic –

but they never stopped.

Reason for notice

Non-payment of bills

Capital improvement

Ellis Act withdrawal

Owner moves in

Nuisance

Breach of contract

Other

Jan

2019

Apr

July

Oct

Jan

2020

Apr

Mar. 2020: protection

from non-payment

evictions begins.

July

Oct

Jan

2021

Apr

July

120

0

40

80

160

Eviction notices

More than 100 Ellis Act eviction notices have been issued in San Francisco since March, 2020. Data from the Rent Arbitration Board. Chart by Will Jarrett.

“The Ellis Act is used by speculators who have no interest in being responsible landlords,” said Jeanine Reisbig, who has lived, since the 1980s, in the apartment building on Castro Street owned by the Malaks. “All they want to do is unjustly evict seniors and disabled workers and many others who need reasonably priced housing.”

Reisbig said her partner depends on healthcare at UCSF, and the couple is only able to stay in San Francisco because of their rent-controlled apartment.  

Speaking by phone on Monday, Malak denied any involvement in the building at 3661 19th St. or knowledge of the eviction process. When asked if he collects rents from the tenants living there, he declined to comment and hung up the phone. 

Pollack and Fong did not respond to requests for comment. 

The tenants at 3661 19th St. are represented by Steve Collier, an attorney with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. 

“There are defenses to an Ellis Act eviction,” Collier said. The tenants’ legal standing may be “somewhat limited, compared to other types of evictions,” Collier added, but he hopes to get the case thrown out with the motions his team will file on behalf of the tenants.  

Most attendees on Monday called for a repeal of the decades-old act notorious for displacing renters. At the very least, Mandelman said, if the Ellis Act can’t be repealed, there should be a delay built in to prevent building owners from flipping properties. So far, earlier attempts to repeal the Ellis Act have failed. 

Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

But Assembly Bill 854 seeks to halt flipping: It would require building owners to hold a property for at least five years before executing an Ellis Act eviction. If they were already evicting tenants at another building using the Ellis Act, the owners would have to wait 10 years. 

And, to avoid the issue of evictions altogether, some speakers said, these rent-controlled buildings full of long-term residents could ideally be purchased by community nonprofit organizations, leaving tenants with a peace of mind that their lives won’t suddenly be uprooted. 

Supervisors will vote this Wednesday during a Budget and Finance Committee meeting to unlock $64 million from the city’s Fiscal Cliff Reserve and apply it toward social housing. 

Larry Kuester, a senior who spoke with a microphone trembling in his hand, told the crowd about how he first came to San Francisco from Missouri decades ago to “be over the rainbow.” But the stress of his current situation has been sending him to the emergency room with anxiety.  

“​​San Francisco currently loses about 400 rent-controlled units a year,” Kuester said. After working for the Department of Public Health and living in his home for over 31 years, he now fears he may end up homeless if evicted. 

Correction: The story has been updated to correctly reflect the state from which Larry Kuester’s moved to San Francisco.

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Follow Us

Eleni Balakrishnan

Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

Join the Conversation

14 Comments

  1. Thank you for the detailed coverage. The detail at the end is alarming: the BoS is considering using $64 million from a reserve fund to buy housing? They want to use another $64MM for rent relief. The fund is for “managing anticipated budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2023-24 and beyond”. If I’m reading it correctly, the City made long-term budget changes based on short-term federal stimulus funds. They got more than they needed for this year, so they put $294MM in a fund. But they expect to spend it within a couple of years. If they allocate $128MM of that, then don’t they need to cut something else?

  2. Who is the property owner’s attorney?
    The attorney is equally responsible for the carnage being inflicted on the tenants. That information is available at the Rent Board. All Ellis notices must be filed with that agency. I’m sure Steve Collier at Tenderloin Housing Clinic knows since he represents the tenants

  3. Some articles in Mission Local are well written and unbiased. This article is one sided, written as if the speakers (the tenants) were the experts. By writing this way the author leads us to incorrect legal conditions. In fact, she leads the reader to the conclusion the owners are committing some illegal action. Anywhere else in the USA, property rights are protected by the Constitution of the United States. In San Francisco, those property rights are withheld. It is like a person who has gone into Safeway for the last 10 years and is of some “protected class” insists that Safeway can only increase the price of the food they sell by some arbitrary amount because Food is a Human Right. Safeway finds it cannot earn enough to keep the store open (similarly but for a different reason, Walgrens) and wants to close (similarly to an Ellis Act) but the Tenants Rights Lawyers (paid by those terrible landlords) want to prevent it and biased “reporters” quote Safeway’s customers as being a customer for many years so should “own” a portion of the store and should be paid by the store before they close.
    San Francisco is an island by itself and can only keep providing these “rights” because of many, many other taxpayers paying for the San Francisco’s “rights”. It cannot go on forever, look at Detroit, it collapsed (for a different reason but the tax base could not support the very large number of “rights” they were providing).
    I know this will not dissuade those demanding their “rights” but it may those who are on the fence and may finally realize they are ones who are paying for other’s “rights” . Maybe enough is enough.

    1. Uncritically reporting a statement like this is borderline malpractice: “Most of the time in San Francisco, if your building goes up for sale and tenants stick together in that building, those tenants get to stay,” said Sarah “Fred” Sherburn-Zimmer of the Housing Rights Committee, which counsels and organizes tenants facing eviction.

      How many of the tenants whose Ellis Act stories were covered by this publication have ended up keeping their rental units? How many would’ve been better off taking 6 figure buyouts?

    2. Your Safeway example doesn’t make sense. The new speculator owners purchased the building knowing exactly how much tenants are paying for rent. In addition, they knew the building had rent control. So, if Safeway has a policy, a “law” that they must honor the advertised price, they should honor it.

    1. Carlos, much of in-migrating middle class could live without subsidy in the city if new buildings were easier to build. That’s been done to much success in growing metros like Houston and Seattle. Increasing the property tax base from such developments (if not with market rate property taxes more generally) could fund robust social housing initiatives for lower income households. This type of cross-subsidization is common in sane public housing programs. It’s also the exact type of cross-subsidization that’s shunned in San Francisco for no good reason. For example, the mayor’s teacher housing by-right charter amendment was nuked by the BoS, and their alternative has yielded 0 units in the pipeline since passing: https://missionlocal.org/2019/07/mayors-teacher-housing-charter-amendment-crashed-and-burned-today-but-perhaps-that-was-the-point/.

      If more (income) taxes could fix the problem, it’d already be fixed. California and the city already have European levels of taxes on income. The other revenue sources we don’t have are the VAT (remember the backlash when Caltrain wanted a 1/8 cent sales tax increase with measure RR — with BoS President Walton calling it effectively racism?) and land taxes.

    2. Even if you’re paying to subsidize a long-term tenant who works as a tech executive and makes $300-400K per year?

  4. Elini is a tremendously gifted reporter. Thank you for the thorough review and contextualizing it. Allowing no-fault evictions via the Ellis Act is cruel and that property-owner option must be disabled.

  5. Shame on the new spectator owners. In 2018, if they didn’t want to get into the rental business, they should NOT have bought a rental property with seniors, LGBTQ, people of color, or any people for that matter. Shame on Ryan Fong, Jeff Pollack, Edith Wong, Pierre Malak, and Tracy Malak. Do the right thing.

    Thank you for the informative article.

  6. Seniors and disabled people need protection by the city and state and federal laws. Fair housing rents are a human need for us all. The Ellis Act is unfair to us and needs a hard look and reform..

  7. Elis act has destroyed so many people’s lives. And adding to the homelessness in SF. It should be repealed. Housing is a basic human need, therefore it needs to be affirded far more stability.

  8. I am not from Tennessee. I said, “I was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, but I moved to San Francisco so that I could be “Over The Rainbow.” “

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *