Update: An earlier version of the chart in this story misstated the overall number of eviction notices in the city. This error has been fixed.
Just as Paul Mooney and his neighbors thought they’d have to fight an Ellis Act eviction in court, a Mission nonprofit came to their rescue.
In an unusual case, landlords of a 12-unit rent-controlled building by Dolores Park dropped evictions against their residents at the last minute, and sold the building to the Mission Economic Development Agency for $7.48 million. Now those units will become permanent affordable housing.
“I am so relieved,” said Mooney, who in 2003 moved to San Francisco for its queer-friendly environment. “The stress of having to worry about where I’m going to live, and whether I have to move and leave the city that I love — that’s gone.”
Mooney’s building at 3661 19th St., a stone’s throw from Dolores Park, was sold to the Mission nonprofit as part of the Small Sites Program, a city initiative that loans nonprofits money to buy a property when its tenants are at risk of displacement. In exchange for the loan, the nonprofit promises to keep tenants in their homes, renovate the aged building, and keep rents affordable in perpetuity.
It’s the happy ending Mooney and his neighbors wanted after weathering two Ellis Act eviction attempts in the last five years. But it only happened after new policies and funding bolstered the recently suffering program.
How it happened
Mooney and his neighbors received eviction notices in 2020. They organized against Ryan Fong, Jeff Pollack, and Pierre and Tracy Malak, who bought the property through their LLC for some $6 million in 2018.
The notices were part of an Ellis Act eviction, a state law that allows property owners to get out of the rental business by removing the building from the market and evicting everyone in a building. But the Ellis Act is often used by speculators who purchase a building at a price based on its rental rates, and then turn around and evict tenants and sell the units as condominiums or Tenancies in Common.
Disability and age concerns pushed the evictions to 2021 but, despite public rallies condemning the owners, the tenants found themselves facing court proceedings by early 2022.
Fate stepped in again: A backlog of court cases caused by Covid-19 kept delaying their court date, buying tenants time to launch more campaigns against the owners.
“The longer the people fight and hold out, the greater the chance to get [landlords] to the table,” Mooney said.
Evictions crashed during COVID,
but now they are creeping back up.
Ellis Act withdrawal
Evictions crashed during
COVID, but now they
are creeping back up.
Ellis Act withdrawal
Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from the Rent Arbitration Board.
In November, Mooney and about half a dozen neighbors joined the tenants’ rights group West Side Tenants Association and staged protests at Fong, Pollack and Malak’s Bay Area homes. Later, the group learned that Pollack had previously bought two San Francisco buildings and flipped them into Tenancies in Common. (One was on Albion Street near 16th Street in the Mission.) During an open house for the TIC, the 19th Street residents showed up and approached prospective buyers. “Did you know this is the situation you’re getting into?” They’d say.
By summer, 2022, MEDA caught wind of the property through Mooney’s eviction lawyers and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Negotiations started. Karoleen Feng, MEDA’s director of community real estate, said they ensured legal proceedings didn’t jeopardize tenants’ housing.
“We had to be careful when approaching the sellers,” Feng said.
But it wasn’t clear if they had the money. Two years ago the Board of Supervisors directed $64 million to support Small Sites, but Mayor London Breed refused to spend it, citing the program’s financial troubles and problematic policies. But by November, 2022, after a program revamp, funds were added and the money became available. That influx helped MEDA buy Mooney’s building, its first Small Sites acquisition since pre-pandemic 2020.
Now 3661 19th St. is no longer rent-controlled, but it is income-restricted. Thanks to November Small Sites program revisions, there’s more flexibility on tenant income and some of the higher-earning tenants will help subsidize the lower-income tenants.
For example, units can now be rented at or 20 percent below market rate of comparable units.
While the tenants of Small Sites projects generally average 80 percent of the area median income, this property’s residents sit at around 110 percent of that. In 2022, that’s $106,700 a year for one person, or $152,400 a year for a family of four.
Mooney said his rent increased, but is pleased that higher-income tenants will cross-subsidize the building’s lower-income tenants. “If that’s what I need to do to help me and my neighbors stay in our building that’s fine.”
To date, 10 of the 12 units are occupied, housing nearly two dozen tenants who are senior, LGBTQ, Asian American or working class.
Small Sites was originally touted as a way to prevent displacement from speculators. About one-third of MEDA’s 35 Small Sites properties — the most in the program — came about from tenants who heard their landlord was selling the building. That shifted when the city passed the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act in 2019, enabling nonprofits to scoop properties straight off the market.
On Thursday, Mooney and neighbors will celebrate the win. Mooney loves that he can continue enjoying his tree-lined view, and close access to Dolores Park. “This experience has taught us that there are different ways you can win,” Mooney said. “Winning and defeating an Ellis eviction doesn’t mean defeating it in court. The Small Sites program can help people stay in their homes.”