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
Other neighborhoods with
most Ellis Act notices
Over the past ten years,
the Mission had more Ellis
Act eviction notices than
any other neighborhood.
with most Ellis Act
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.