State Sen. Mark Leno, with Mayor Ed Lee and Assemblymember Phil Ting, announce widespread support for Ellis Act reform. A state Assembly committee apparently didn’t care.

By Tim Redmond

JUNE 18 — The state Legislature kept up its reputation as a difficult, if not hostile place for tenants’ rights today when a key Assembly committee refused to pass Sen. Mark Leno’s Ellis Act reform measure.

The bill, which would protect San Francisco tenants from speculators, failed 3-4 in the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development, with two Democrats joining two Republicans in opposing the measure.

Both Democrats – Cheryl Brown of San Bernadino and Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton – have received campaign money in the past year from the real-estate industry.

The measure can still come back to the committee for reconsideration.

State Sen. Mark Leno, the author of the bill, presented it as a modest fix to a serious problem, the abuse of the Ellis Act by speculators who buy property, throw out the tenants, and flip the buildings for quick profits as tenancies in common, a legal way to create property similar to condominiums.

In fact, Leno told the committee members that the real-estate industry backers of the Ellis Act never intended it to be used to turn rental housing in to condominiums. In 1985, when the measure was before the Legislature, a representative of the Realtors said the bill “very fundamentally and simply permits the owner to cease using the property for rent, not to change it to another use.”

Nevertheless, for reasons that were at times bizarre, Brown and Quirk-Silva voted no. The chair, Ed Chau, joined Tom Ammiano and Mariko Yamada in voting yet. The two Republicans, Beth Gaines and Brian Maienschein, were also opposed.

Brown, who clearly hasn’t paid much attention to the news in San Francisco, asked if Ellis Act evictions were really a problem. Then she said she had talked to her brother, who said “it’s taking my property.” Don’t know if her brother owns property in San Francisco, but the bill doesn’t “take” anything; it would just allow San Francisco to put some limits on Ellis-fueled speculation.

Brown also tried to argue that San Francisco had created its own problem by not building enough housing – although the massive boom in new housing going on right now is doing nothing, zero for affordability.

People who identified themselves as small property owners in San Francisco showed up in numbers to testify against the measure – but as Leno pointed out, most of them appeared to have owned their buildings for many years, and thus would not be affected by the bill.

The setback isn’t necessarily the end for this bill – Chau offered Leno the chance to bring the measure back again for another try. But that would mean convincing one off the two opposing Democrats to change their positions.

Brown has received campaign money from the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles and the Executive Council of Homeowners. Quirk-Silva got $1,000 each from the San Diego Apartment Association and the California Apartment Association PAC, campaign finance records show.

Tenant advocates knew this would be a tough committee, and expected a close vote.

The challenge of getting a tenant bill through the state Legislature, despite the remarkable skills and exception efforts by Leno and the broad base of support in San Francisco, shows how important it is to fight the Ellis Act on every front, both statewide and local. It adds importance to the anti-speculation tax that tenant advocates are looking to put on the November ballot.