Photo taken by Annika Hom.

On the day Denhi Donis held a protest to keep her home, she had a flower for each of her supporters: A multi-colored rose for a family friend, a yellow gerbera daisy for the saxophonist’s strap, a white flower to tuck behind her son’s ear. 

“It gives me joy to give flowers,” said Donis, who is known as the neighborhood Flower Lady. She learned from her mother that by offering flowers, “the creator of the universe hears your prayers.” 

And, for the past two years, Donis has prayed for one thing: To evade an Ellis Act eviction from the Bernal Heights apartment where she has lived for the last 15 years. Donis is not the only one facing an Ellis Act eviction; so far this year, some 20 Ellis Act eviction notices have been issued to tenants. Already, this represents nearly a third the total of all Ellis Act eviction notices in 2021.

“This fight is not just for me, my friends. This fight is for thousands of people who are getting dispossessed of the most precious thing: Their home,” Donis said.  

The Ellis Act is a 1985 law meant to provide long-term landlords a legal way to exit the rental market. Increasingly, however, it has been used by recent landlords to evict tenants and then sell the units as tenancies-in-common, known as TICs, for a tidy profit. 

Donis’s landlords, who live in the second unit of a two-unit building, declined to speak to Mission Local, and their intent for the unit is unclear. City records show they purchased the building in 2017 for $1.3 million. Under the Ellis Act, they cannot lease it out for five years after the evictions, but there are no restrictions on converting them to ownership units, like tenancies in common. 

Most Ellis Act Evictions involve multiple units and, to invoke it, all of the tenants are given notice. Donis pays $1,180 a month for her 2-bedroom unit. 

Meanwhile, Raquel Fox, an attorney representing Donis, is also assisting with an Ellis Act case on 19th Street for a 12-unit building. “When you get these cases, like 19th Street, which is wiping out 12 rental units, then there’s something really disgusting and reprehensible,” Fox said. 

She added that Donis, who is 65 years old, has battled cancer and continues to suffer health problems. “Her health is fragile, and she could be thrown out on the streets.”

Generally, tenants who fight an Ellis Act eviction in court seek to prove that the landlord doesn’t have the bona fide intent to get out of the residential business, orthat the landlord hasn’t strictly complied with the procedural requirements. 

The tenants on 19th Street are fighting the eviction, and went to court last week in a case that is likely to take at least two weeks to resolve. The owner of the 19th Street building purchased it in 2018 and first tried to use the Ellis Act to evict tenants that same year, but failed because of a procedural mistake. Landlords tried again in 2020, which led the tenants to court this month.

No other neighborhood has been barraged by Ellis Act evictions like the Mission. Since 1997, the earliest date San Francisco has tracked eviction notices, tenants in the Mission have received 688 Ellis Act eviction notices. The neighborhood with the second highest is the Castro, with 320 notices. So far this year, the Mission is the neighborhood with the highest number of Ellis Act eviction notices; five of the 20 buildings to receive Ellis Act notices are in the Mission. 

Over the past ten years, the Mission had more Ellis

Act eviction notices than any other neighborhood.

Ellis Act eviction notices

80

70

60

Mission

50

40

Other neighborhoods with

most Ellis Act notices

30

20

10

0

‘13

‘14

‘15

‘16

‘17

‘18

‘19

‘20

‘21

‘22

Year

Over the past ten years,

the Mission had more Ellis

Act eviction notices than

any other neighborhood.

Year

‘13

‘14

‘15

Mission

‘16

Other neighborhoods

with most Ellis Act

notices

‘17

‘18

‘19

‘20

‘21

‘22

50

70

30

40

60

80

0

10

20

Ellis Act eviction notices

Top ten neighborhoods with most Ellis Act eviction notices over the past ten years. Data from the Rent Arbitration Board, graphic by Will Jarrett. 2022 data available up to March 31.

With rents so high, it is likely that Donis and others evicted from a building will be unable to remain in the city. “I probably have to leave the country, mama,” she told Mission Local, because she is unable to afford living in the United States. 

Donis became a Mission character after years of offering flowers to community organizers, donating bouquets to Rio Yañez for his Dia de los Muertos altars, and selling flowers on Cortland Avenue. One could say peddling petals was her life’s calling; her name, Denhi, means flower in her indigenous language, Otomi. “Blame my mother,” she quipped at the rally. 

Protest attendees shared memories of Donis bestowing flowers in solidarity at police protests or eviction rallies. “Everytime we see flowers in somebody’s hair, we know Denhi was there, spreading love,” said Deepa Varma, Tenants Together program director, with a flower in hand.

It’s unclear what will happen in Donis’s case, but her attorneys are prepared to go to trial if necessary. At present, tenants groups like Tenants Together and Housing Rights Committee advocated for a new assembly bill that would prohibit Ellis Act evictions if the owner did not own the building for at least five years, or if the landlord used the Ellis Act within the last 10 years on another building. 

This, however, is the fourth iteration of a bill, but “this time, we think we’re going to do it,” Varma said. That may have kept Donis in her home; the landlord bought the house just shy of five years ago, city documents show. 

“My hope is that they withdraw the eviction,” Donis said. 

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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28 Comments

  1. “long term landlords”
    Fair enough.
    But Ellis speculator TIC flipping is the personification of evil.
    How do people face their families and children?
    “Daddy – what do you do for a living?”
    “I throw people out of their homes and on to the street.”
    Seriously?
    This is the only way you can figure out to make a living?
    We’re trying to help an elderly lady with a tortuous, multi year, ongoing TIC flip Ellis eviction.
    Not being lawyers – not much we can do but offer encouragement and support.
    Take it to a jury trial.
    It’s going to be extremely difficult to seat a jury of San Franciscans who are not renters and who do not positively loathe Ellis TIC flippers.
    The jury can justify finding for the defendant thru some rationale or technicality or just the sense of right and wrong.
    The jury doesn’t have to explain their verdict to anyone.
    The “LAW” is wrong – don’t be afraid of the judge’s mumbo-jumbo and do the right thing.

    1. You’re accusing the current owners who live upstairs and have done so since they purchased the property half a decade ago are trying to legalize a basement unit and flip it as a TIC? With no evidence? Most unlawful detainers based on the Ellis Act prevail.

  2. Another point, typical of Ms. Fox’s emotional misrepresentations, Donis is not being “just thrown out on the street.” An Ellis Act eviction of a senior takes over a year and the tenant is well compensated. The longer it takes the MORE Ms Fox is compensated (by city taxpayers). She has plenty of time to find a place in a less expensive/trendy hood.

    1. And according to the article she has been there for 2 years since the notice was served. Evidently she can afford a good lawyer even if not a higher rent.

      That the owners have to go through all that hassle just to get rid of a single tenant in a 2-unit building where the owners already live indicates to me that tenants have plenty of protections, perhaps to many. Anywhere else in the country you just give a tenant 30 days to move out and that is it.

    2. @Duchess: The ‘hood wasn’t expensive or trendy when she moved in. Guess that’s just too bad for her, then, right? She should have been born with more money.

      1. Perhaps not everyone can afford to live in the world’s favorite city? I cannot afford to live in Aspen. Should I demand that a property owner there subsidize my rent so that I can live somewhere that is beyond my earning level?

      2. Bernal and San Francisco have been expensive for nearly half a century. Have you read the opening words of the rent ordinance?

  3. Breed say whatever she wants about the homelessness in SF, but as long as Elis act keeps displacing people. Whatever Breed says is just a meaningless lip service. If she really wanted to see improvements then she needs to stop ALL forms of evictions from taking place.

    1. Breed cannot do anything about Ellis evictions because Ellis is a state law that specifically over-rides what any city or county can do.

      So both Breed and the Board of Supervisors are powerless in these situations.

    2. Breed is nothing more than a face of both a woman and a person of color who’s main use is representing the progressive image San Francisco covets, not actually being a decent mayor.

  4. “so far this year, some 20 Ellis Act eviction notices have been issued to tenants. Already, this represents nearly a third the total of all Ellis Act eviction notices in 2021.”

    So we are more than a third of the way through the year and there is less than a third of the number of Ellis Acts filed as last year? Maybe the owners don’t want to be landlords in a city where it’s an extremely onerous and unpleasant role?

  5. “Rent if optional”
    “property is theft”
    “whats yours is mine and whats mine is mine”.

    Those who are Ellis’d go to the front of the Affordable housing line. I wish her luck.

    1. ……too bad the final violent and unlawful map adopted by the Redistricting Task Farce throws all of that into complete chaos…….

  6. Thinking you can control some one else private property, just because you happen to rent it for a while, is the personification of evil. The definition of rental is… ” the temporary use if something”. Leftists are always trying to redefine everything with toxic results. Sure someone will live in that apartment, just not you, what makes you so special you get to put a lock on someone else’s property for nothing ?

  7. More housing opportunities for buyers makes, for a better city than entitled renters who use government regulations to game the system in their personal favor.

  8. Ugh. These comments. Her “good lawyer” is from a non-profit that represents people who can’t afford lawyers (and she IS a good lawyer, just not being paid by the tenant). As for the comment about her being “well compensated”… the payment isn’t large enough to help someone with SF’s market rent: “Owners are required to pay relocation expenses to tenants who are being evicted under the Ellis Act. Pursuant to Ordinance Section 37.9A, each authorized occupant, regardless of age, is entitled to a relocation payment of $4,500.00 (as of February 20, 2005), with a maximum payment of $13,500.00 per unit.” The cheapest studios on the market are starting around $1,500. If you take the difference in what she’s paying now and the cheapest alternative, she’s looking at paying an increase of at least $400/month (not to mention downsizing her entire life from a 2bd to a studio). $4,500 divided by $400 gives her 11 months of rent assistance. Since she’d need to pay a deposit at a new place, the extra cash probably wouldn’t stretch past 6 months. Hardly a “just find a new place” situation. And what about community? She’s clearly deeply entrenched and dearly loved by her neighbors. This is how we treat our elders? After they give and give to a community, they just get pushed out so rich people with no connection can move in (and another rich person gets richer from the sale)? The callousness of some of these comments is just sickening. Ellis is rarely used in SF as it was intended (to allow long time landlords to retire), and in need serious reform.

    1. KV, why do you think that a tenant who signs a one year lease is entitled to a lifetime of cheap rent subsidized by the owner of that property, without any recourse?

      Ellis is the only recourse for an owner who is stuck unwillingly paying subsidies, welfare and charity to a random stranger. No wonder landlords prefer other options to providing long-term rentals.

      1. Long term tenants subsidise their landlords. I have lived in my flat for 30 years and have paid my landlords over $300.000 for a building their parents bought in the 1960’s for $75.000. I think I should have the protection from the State to stay in my home. I believe that there should be some kind of state renter protection in case a new owner who buys at Market Rate and can’t really afford to keep a long term tenant. Tax the rich and have a fund to help new owners keep their long term tenants. California has a budget surplus that could well help with such law that would help keep long term tenants in their home.
        My building is going up for sale soon and I may be Ellis acted after subsidising my landlords for 30 years

        1. Buildings are expensive to maintain and operate. You were not “subsidizing” the landlord. You were paying them to do those two things instead of doing it yourself.

    2. I agree with your sentiment that she is entrenched and loved by her community… What I don’t get is why her vast community is not willing to support her financially at all!

      Why should one single person (the building owner) be asked to subsidize her lifestyle all alone, yet all her supposed community and supporters are not willing to do anything at all to financially support her? Doesn’t seem very supportive after all.

  9. I wish the owner and the tenant good things: the owners w/ their unencumbered property and the tenant with a new housing opportunity elsewhere.
    Sure both probably got a good deal, but the owner waited the 5yrs and now the tenant can find a new place. They have followed the laws, but now the tenant is not happy and wants to fight. If the tenant thinks rents are too high in SF perhaps they’d look at these laws more closely and realise all sticks and no carrots will means no inventory from small mom & pops.
    There is no requirement for the owner to continue providing below market rent. Both parties will be relieved when it’s over. If anything is evil, it’s the cruel world of SF’s screwed policy and free lawyers paid for by property taxes!

  10. She seems like a nice lady, but she can’t afford the real cost of the place where she is living. Her life is already massively subsidized by other people who pay taxes here. I understand the value of having a diverse community, but we have to be realistic – you can only stretch things so far. Many of the same people who oppose this eviction also oppose more housing construction!

    1. And you have to ask why it is so important that she lives in the Mission? Or even in the city?

      Oakland is 10 miles away, is 20 minutes by BART and has rents that are 40% cheaper on average.

  11. The responses are appalling, but are what we natives have come to expect from the transplants. SF needs a middle class to sustain it. Apts that normal people can afford are also necessary. As a tenant, you should be able to live stress free without fear of losing your place because the owner smells tech money and wants to rent at a higher price under the guise of the Ellis Act. Often, the renter has out lived the turnover of owners who sold for a profit and/or flipped the property. Affordable Housing program is a joke ( Disabled and fire victim got me nothing) , You’re considered poor if you make below $82.500 yearly, and long term tenants who were renting before the boom need lower rents. The main issue is that not everyone deserves housing here! Our infrastructure is laughable. Most of the newly built hideous condos stand empty or are way too expensive. Long term residents deserve security. The newly arrived need to read the small print on ballots, and learn city history. Not everyone here is 20-35 making $100,000 +, and knowing some history might help you understand more readily that because of the sudden influx of money here, landlords have become greedy, and the rental choices now cater to the young and monied .

    1. I could equally argue that tenants who expect a lifetime cheap rent are being just as “greedy” as those landlords whom you conveniently like to blame for your inability to be able to afford to live here.

      The effect of rent control over the last 43 years has been to reward some TTs who have been lucky enough to desperately cling to their controlled housing unit, whilst punish TTs who aren’t so lucky or unambitious. In a similar way RC rewards LLs who can get turnover but punishes the “nice” LLs who don’t.

      So do not be shocked when bad LLs replace good ones.

    2. There isn’t a “sudden influx” of money. San Francisco has been an expensive city for 40+ years, and it was the West Coast financial center for most of the 20th century. Long term residents should consider shouldering the responsibility for designing a city with land use policies that pit wage earners against wage earners. This is the consequence.

  12. @Crip
    LL needs to be ‘greedy’ as you put it otherwise they get stuck w/ a tenant who might want to stay 20-30yrs. As Tom said above, ‘nice LL’s’ can’t afford to operate long term. It’s not a matter of evil or nice it’s just the way long time San Franciscans have stacked the deck and created the policy’s that they then complain about and then end up being on Mission Local complaining. Of course lawyers are willing to take the money. I’ve only lived here 25yrs and the laws get crazier every time some progressive needs votes to keep his/her seat.
    Not sure there are any incentives for new LL’s in SF, bad news for tenants but good news for homes being freed up for ownership.
    I’m sure both parties will have relief when it’s over.

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