On November 14th San Francisco City Hall heard testimonies from dozens of San Franciscans who were evicted from their homes during a hearing on the Ellis Act. Since the implementation of the the Ellis Act over twenty years ago, more than four thousand people have faced evictions. My friend received news in September that he had to vacate his studio apartment, he is one of many renters along the Market and 6th Street corridor evicted on the premise of the Ellis Act. His building on Market is one of the last remaining remnants of affordable housing in the city, particularly for low-income residents. Unfortunately, for many San Franciscans this story is becoming less uncommon. So what exactly is the Ellis Act, and why has it been so controversial?
The Ellis Act essentially undermines rent control and condominium laws in California by allowing property owners a loophole in evicting renters. The state act was created to supersede a 1984 California Supreme Court decision called Nash v. City of Santa Monica. The decision made it illegal for property owners to evict tenants on the basis of retirement without a permit by the city. The decision stated that permits would only be given if the property owner could not, “make a reasonable return on his or her investment.” The Ellis Act grants landlords the unconditional right to “go out of business” with only minor provisions. In San Francisco, the property owner is required to give an average renter a minimum of $5,105 dollars in relocation benefits and a maximum of $15,315 (this is the highest relocation fee in the state). In addition, the property owner must provide all renters proper notice and cannot lease out the property again for an extended amount of time. However, in a city where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,800 a month and renters are expected to pay first and last month rent along with a deposit, $5,000 is not a fair trade-off for most low-income residents.
Instead of retiring altogether, some landlords are simply enacting the Ellis Act to kick out their current tenants and rent to individuals willing to pay a higher rate, or turn their buildings into tenancies-in-common (TIC) to make a quick profit. The San Francisco Tenants Right Union, even warns of some property owners sending “advisories” notices to tenants of a possible Ellis Eviction to bluff tenants into moving out– or simply buying them out. Such abuses of the Ellis Act have occurred, resulting in less affordable housing and the exodus of low-income residents in favor of wealthier ones. The two areas that have been affected the most by Ellis Acts evictions are the Mission and Castro district, where many are long-term elderly residents. During the November City Hall meeting, budget and legislative analyst Fred Brousseau presented a study that showed a nearly 145% increase in Ellis Act evictions in the last twelve months alone.
Currently, two policies in the works aim to restrict the surge in Ellis Act evictions. One, set forth by Ed Lee’s office, makes evictions more expensive in order to encourage landlords from pursuing them. Lee plans to raise the costs of permits and limit the sale and resale of buildings after an Ellis Act eviction. The second proposal by Supervisor David Campos would bar property owners from raising rent post-eviction and a moratorium on evictions. Campos also suggested an increase in the relocation fees for current tenants and tracking buyouts along with formal Ellis evictions. Campos’ idea is particularly compelling as it addresses the rising costs for renters in San Francisco.
While both city proposals have the potential for change, all past modifications to the enactment have failed. Proponents of the Ellis Act say it allows property owners an option to remove tenants who have lived in the same unit long-term and have now become an economic burden. However, the Nash v. City of Santa Monica decision already protected property owners’ investments. The idea that property owners can evict long-term renters to make a greater profit is problematic, and a renter should not be at fault for remaining in a unit. Property owners enter into a contract willingly with the renter when they move in, and new owners know they are legally responsible for renters upon sale. It is important for us to not only know our rights as renters but also protect long-term residents of the city, by supporting legislation that will create more inclusive housing for San Francisco citizens.
Bryce Chiodo is a senior international studies major.