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Uncategorized Facing the eviction threat: Tenants push back and slow...

Facing the eviction threat: Tenants push back and slow Ellis evictions in 2014


April 11, 2014 March protesting evictions of teachers in San Francisco.  Published with permission from Eviction Free SF
April 11, 2014 March protesting evictions of teachers in San Francisco. Published with permission from Eviction Free SF

 By Gen Fujioka

Part one of a two-part series

JANUARY 5, 2014 — As San Francisco’s tenants and their progressive allies take stock and develop their agenda for this new year, it’s worth considering a significant achievement in 2014:  a multifaceted effort pushed back a wave of Ellis Act evictions.

Given where we started at the close of 2013, this is a very big deal.

This chart shows the annualized rate of Ellis evictions initiated each month from 2010 through December 2013:48hillsevixp1

Between 2010 and 2011 the city averaged on about 100 housing units a year withdrawn under the Ellis Act.  Then, in 2012, Ellis related evictions began to surge across the city.

Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, organizer with the Housing Rights Committee, recalled, “by mid 2013 we were being deluged with calls from tenants who had received a notice or a threat of an Ellis. People were terrified and there was a sense of helplessness.”

Tenant organizations held a series of protests and rallies throughout the summer of 2013. In September, 2013, hundreds of supporters from across the city blocked the sheriff from evicting the Lee family.

Despite the protests, the number of Ellis evictions continued to grow. In December, 2013, landlords filed to withdraw 60 units of housing in a single month. The rate approached 450 units a year during the final quarter of 2013.

Then something remarkable occurred: Beginning in January, 2014, the number of new Ellis evictions initiated by landlords began to subside.   At first the trend was erratic but it became consistent by the middle of the year.



What happened?

Housing market conditions didn’t change. Rising rents and a strong TIC market continued to favor the Ellis-eviction industry. But political and legal efforts to resist and constrain Ellis evictions disrupted speculator and landlord plans to invoke the Ellis Act.

Given the chronology of events and the eviction trend data, no one single factor was probably responsible for restraining speculators and landlords. Some of the most significant initiatives discouraging new Ellis cases included:

  • With growing community support, more tenants chose to stay and fight their evictions. Accounts of a dozen of those successful tenant struggles were recently published by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. With expanded city funding, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic eviction defense team played an essential role in a number of those victories.
  • Senator Mark Leno and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano both introduced legislation in Sacramento to curtail Ellis evictions.  The Leno legislation, endorsed by Mayor Ed Lee, would have stopped speculator-driven Ellis evictions already on file. After winning approval in the Senate it was defeated in the Assembly in June –but in the meantime it increased speculator concerns.
  • Working with tenant advocates, Supervisors David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar each introduced legislation designed to curtail Ellis evictions and displacement. The Campos relocation assistance ordinance was passed in April, and would shift more of the costs of displacement to landlords. A federal court judge struck the ordinance down in October and that decision is on appeal.
  • Proposition G proposed to impose a tax on real estate speculation.  While it was narrowly defeated in November by an onslaught of a $2 million realtor campaign, the threat of its passage cast a cloud over those seeking to make quick profits from new Ellis evictions.  Its strong showing leaves a pathway for another anti-speculation ballot measure in the future.

Through these multiple initiatives, tenants and their allies have created barriers and hazards for Ellis evictors. In combination it’s apparent that Ellis evictions became a more risky investment strategy, resulting in the sustained decline in new Ellis filings and in some investors abandoning previously filed cases.  At least for 2014, tenant organizing and policy reform efforts resulted in keeping hundreds of families and seniors in their homes.

Equally important, although harder to quantify, organizers have noted a change in tenant attitudes last year.  “Organizing buildings has really changed,” said Sherburn-Zimmer. “Only a year ago, when tenants got Ellis eviction notices there was a general feeling that nothing could be done. Now I find most tenants ready to fight. They want to know what they can do. They are more interested in organizing together and challenging the owners.”

Erin McElroy, a founder of Eviction Free SF, agreed. “In 2014 we built a coalition to shift the public discourse and the popular understanding about speculation,” she said. We did not fully stop gentrification but we challenged it, disrupting the ability for speculators to flip buildings. We need to keep up the fight and even step things up.”

Tomorrow, part two: challenging an expanding range of eviction threats in 2015.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. Simply ask senator Scott Wiener honorary LondonFrown,around town social frowns. Evictions increasing whom influencing SmallPro S.F and SFAA many selling smaller apt communities yes
    price higher rentals. San Mateo and Santa Clara equivalent to mayhem of REITS lobby for change!

  2. You assume that all growth is a bubble, which retraces back to the original “normal” level. In other words, you are arguing that RE follows a reversion to the mean.

    Reversion to the mean is usually for ratios and relative metrics. So the ratio between, say home prices and incomes stands a better chance of reverting to the mean, than home prices itself.

    But in fact even the ratio of home prices to income has been increasing for 30 years, partly due to lowering interest rates, partly due to two-income families, and partly due to more efficient borrowing vehicles. SF RE now runs about ten times average SF household income.

    Throw in the huge rise in incomes over the last 30 years and it is clear that we are not going back to 1984, or even 2004. What really happens with “bubbles” is that you get higher lows and higher highs, meaning that bubbles are ultimately wobbles in a secular growth story. Look at the graphs here, showing large rises and small fallbacks.

    I’m afraid we’re not going back. At best, we might slow down a little.

  3. While I do sympathize for people who are forced to find a new home after renting from a property for a certain amount of time, I also find it slightly ridiculous that owners are being penalized for wanting to live in their own property.

    These owners pay property tax, they forked out a great amount of cash at some point to purchase property in a extremely expensive part of the country. To be told you are not allowed to live there when you or a family member actually has good intention to is ludicrous.

    And that it’s become a process that is expensive and met with such resistance is even more baffling. Protests are essentially happening because owners are angry that they aren’t getting a great deal on their highly valued property anymore and cheating economics.

  4. You can generally tell when a piece of legislation is bad because it breeds an endless series of further amendments and laws designed to close this loophole and that loophole. That process never ends if your initial law is counter-productive.

    When rent control first came along, there was no control over evictions. so LLs just evicted so they could get a higher rent.

    So then eviction control was passed, whereupon buyers would form groups and OMI an entire building.

    So then the city said only one OMI per building. And that is what started the Ellis craze.

    And why do we have Ellis? Because a CA city tried to force a property owner to use his property as a rental against his will.

    And now they want to mess with Ellis, although that will be hard because Ellis reflects an important constitutional principle.

    And all this time, rents have gone higher and higher. And, as you note, there are now far more evictions than there were before so-called controls on evictions.

    The law of unintended consequences, over and over. They never learn.

  5. Mark, maybe so, but if the move-in eviction notice is a pretext and in bad faith, the burden of proof would be on the tenant to prove that.

    Proving bad intent would be really hard to do because you would have to argue that someone else’s state of mind is other than what they say it is.

    Not impossible to do, but the odds are against you unless they are proven bad actor.

    Generally bad faith is only evident after the fact.

  6. i’m not certain it’s unconstitutional, but I am fairly certain it’s not if the owner move-in is a pretext; discovery would tell. Even if it was, the correct judicial order is to limit, not fully overturn, the rent control ordinance.

  7. The Outer Sunset! The horrors you couldn’t stay in your trendy latte hood. The Outer Sunset is like living in Compton!

  8. To truly turn back the tide you will have to undermine the increasing popularity of urban living and restore the allure of suburbia that dominated the last 50 years, build more freeways so the suburban working hordes can get to work in a reasonable fashion, reduce the awareness of global warming and popular sentiment that favors reducing oil consumption, reduce the cost of operating a city, so that city governments don’t feel compelled to increase tax revenues. All that or you could just declare capitalism over and henceforth we’ll have housing by assignment, similar to seating assignment in grade school. That way you can set aside the urban cores for artists and activitists and aging hippies and the disadvantaged, which is apparently so much more important than all other considerations.

  9. KnowsBetter, you are correct but it is a much broader problem with the left. Almost any aspect of leftist policy involves demonizing some class of people. Typical suspects:

    White people
    The wealthy

    Liberalism is predicated on envy and class prejudice.

  10. Ways you can check on whether the owner or relative moved in include:

    1) Ask your old neighbors or other tenants in the building
    2) See if they are claiming a homeowners exemption on their property taxes. Or whether the rent board fee is still being levied.
    3) Google the address and see what names and phone numbers come up
    4) Track down utility services or phone/cable accounts at that address.
    5) Voter reglistration list if you have access

    If you want to be more sneaky, you can walk or drive by at different times of the day and night. See what name is on the doorbell or mailbox. Notice any vehicle there, and so on.

    You could even ring the doorbell and see who answers, but perhaps better to have someone do that on your behalf.

    Once there looks like there might be money in it, your lawyer may pay for a PI to get real proof before alerting the owner that a suit is afoot. Once he gets the summons, he might cover his tracks.

  11. There are a number of metrics to use. Some people use cap ratios or gross rent multipliers:

    But I prefer to use gross rental yield i.e. a similar metric to the way dividend yields are computed on stocks. It’s the annual gross rent divided by the current valuation, expressed as a percentage.

    You make a good point that that takes no account of the owner’s costs or of what he originally paid for the building. However it is a good guide for comparing the building as it is now as an investment with an alternative investment that the owner could switch into.

    Your current owner may have low costs and you might then be safe. But if he sells up, the numbers won’t crunch for the new owner as he has much higher costs. That is why I like the gross yield number.

    Of course you may not have all the numbers but you can make an informed guess. His purchase price is a matter of public record, as is his mortgage if you can bother to go down to the assessor-recorder’s office and look at the liens. Property tax amount is also public record and you can take a reasonable guess at trash, water and insurance.

    Capital improvements is harder to compute. Good luck.

  12. All these Ellis evictions wouldn’t be a problem if not for rent controls in the first place. It’s sad how little progressives in SF know about basic economics.

  13. Sam, How does one figure out what the gross rental yield is? All revenue from rents minus all costs of mortgage, insurance, upkeep, and taxes? And how would any tenant find out if his or her landlord were clearing the necessary 4%, thus making the rent controlled unit a longer term, viable option for said tenant. I ask, because I would like to stay in my rent controlled unit and need some sense as to whether this is viable for my landlord’s bottom line. Since market rents are rising so fast in SF, it is hard for me to gauge whether my rent stabilized place is still providing the landlord with a necessary 4%+ yield, even if it is not giving him the most optimal profit that a new tenant might.

  14. Sorry for the misplaced comment insertion. I meant that comment for Sam. I really learned something about move out rules and how to go about checking on compliance over the 3 year post OMI vs RMI event.

  15. In the case of a pet, if it were my tenant, I’d suggest the following:

    1) Lodge with friends or family until a good home can be found

    2) A pet home or shelter

    3) Pay a higher deposit and I might agree

    Better to move the pet somewhere within the three days and then negotiate, than risk a certain eviction.

  16. Even if you think landlords have it too easy in SF – I’m not a landlord, and have no skin in that game – the problem with the “rentier” line is that it ignores that there are real costs and responsibilities taken on by landlords that tenants are inherently shielded from. Who put down a huge chunk of cash for a piece of property that may well depreciate, and depreciate significantly? Who is responsible for covering maintenance, and handling repairs after disaster? That actually _is_a contribution, and it is that shield which you’re paying for. (If your housing was publicly managed, you’d just pay for it in more taxes instead.)

    This is what’s frustrating about modern tenant activism in SF – too much of it is about pursuing all the rights and privileges of ownership without the responsibilities and risks that go along with ownership.

  17. Off the top of my head… an unsanctioned pet. Sure, it only takes a minute to throw the poor animal out on the streets. But if one were to be expected to deal with the animal humanely, I don’t think it’s realistic to find a good home in 72 hours.

  18. Greg,

    I hope you understand that the definition of “Rentier Class” includes a large proportion of retirees who are receiving pensions. This would include every public employee in SF. All landlords are not Rich Uncle Pennybags as the SFTU would have you believe.

  19. I agree with you, Greg. But then you don’t have the best interests of landlords and property owners at heart either.

    So if I am biased, then so are you. The difference is that you gave out bad information and I corrected you.

  20. As predicted, right out of Marx.

    There are certainly people who live off the profits of capitalism, and if you want to call them rentiers, then fine. But you are in a capitalist nation so what else would you expect? If you dont lie capitalism maybe you should have stayed in your homeland.

    And as the other poster said, you would not have a home except that a “rentier” chooses to provide one for you.

    If you are self-employed, then you are a rentier, deriving an income from prior investments in assets, tools, resources, skills and time. While if you work for a corporation, then your job exists only because of a rentier.

    Your life would be unthinkable but for the class of people whom you claim to hate.

  21. You can serve legal notices by “substitutued service” (AKA “mail and nail) but usually only after you first try and serve personally. If, using your example, a tenant is out of town for weeks, then that may be the only option.

    you can even serve by publication i.e. putting the notice in a newspaper.

    More time is allowed for those types of service. Do you really think the courts havent worked this out?

    It’s always better to serve personally because alternate services can more easily be throw out of court.

    Please supply an example of a breach that could never be cured in 3 days. I say you cannot and are bluffing

  22. Sam, I think even you would agree that you don’t have the best interests of tenants at heart. Although I must say, you did come up with a good idea for some necessary regulation.

  23. “A 3-day notice has to be personally served, so it will have no effect if the tenant is out of town.”

    Not true.
    Landlords can and do serve three-day notices (for a whole variety of non-essential issues) by taping it to the door. I’ve actually had this happen to me. For someone who claims to be a landlord and know all the tricks about getting rid of tenants, you certainly don’t have a very good command of the law.

    “I cannot think of a breach that cannot be cured in three days.”

    Then clearly it’s best to have these new regulations written by someone with more imagination than yourself.

  24. There’s a name for this subsidy too. It’s called “rent.”

    It’s a subsidy because those who receive it from another citizen are essentially living off that citizen’s work, while contributing little or no work themselves. The people who receive such subsidies are known as the Rentier Class. Even landlords themselves acknowledge that they’re living off the subsidies of others… well at least the honest ones. There’s one guy here who even goes by the moniker of “SFRentier.”

    Here’s what Wikipedia says about Rentier Capitalism:
    “Rentier capitalism is a term currently used to describe economic practices of parasitic monopolization of access to any (physical, financial, intellectual, etc.) kind of property, and gaining significant amounts of profit without contribution to society.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]”

  25. Greg, I am discussing the (bad and wrong) facts you gave. You are the one engaged in personal smears to try and detract from having your errors exposed.

  26. Wrong again, Greg. You are really besting yourself today.

    A 3-day notice has to be personally served, so it will have no effect if the tenant is out of town.

    Non-payment and late-payment of rent are totally separate just causes for eviction under the ordinance. (There are 15 of them – look them up).

    So a breach of rental agreement isn’t about rent but things like an unapproved roommate or pet, if the lease requires they be approved in advance.

    I cannot think of a breach that cannot be cured in three days.

  27. Well, again. I think we need to consider the source of the “advice.” You claim to be a “successful” landlord. I actually find the claim suspect, because you don’t fit the profile of someone who’s actually wealthy in real life. But there’s no question who’s interests you’re shilling for here.

  28. Do please describe this “subsidy” that landlords get, Greg.

    This should be good. Cue some quasi-communist propaganda.

  29. What if the “breach” of the lease has nothing to do with not paying the rent? What if the tenant is out of town when the landlord shoves the 3 day notice under the door? What if it’s something the tenant can’t reasonably do in 3 days?

    No, I think you seized upon a very good idea. That doesn’t happen very often, so don’t try to walk it back now. There are plenty of opportunities for sensible regulations that would protect tenants.

  30. No, you made some very specific statements that were factually wrong. I corrected you to save this tenant from being given bad information.

  31. My advice was to go to the Tenants Union, where they have nice legal counselors who are looking out for the interests of tenants, as opposed to, say, landlord interest-shilling internet trolls. The latter would be the *worst* place a victimized tenant should look to for sound advice.

  32. ” there are people in San Francisco who truly believe they are entitled to lifetime subsidies from other private citizens.”

    Those people are called “landlords.”

  33. Wrong, Greg, this isn’t an owner-move in (OMI) but a relative-move in (RMI). They are separate just causes for eviction.

    And specifically, no ownership is required. The requirement is that the owner already lives in the building and that the relative is a parent, child, sibling or spouse.

    Your advice to move out if the eviction is illegal is also bad. There is no way to know ahead of time if it is legal or illegal because that depends on subsequent behavior. You can get an OMI or RMI thrown out if you can prove bad intent, but that is near impossible to do, and rarely happens.

    Unless there is a technical error in the paperwork, then it’s best to take the relo expenses and comply. As noted, you can always check up on the place later to make sure the move-in happened

  34. Make sure you keep tabs on her for the next 3 years. If the daughter does not stay there for 36 continuous months, you can sue for wrongful eviction and damages can run well into 6 figures. And, regardless of the early vacancy, the owner will have to first offer to re-rent the place to you for the previous rent.

    Also, I think the “daughter” has to be at least 1/4 owner in order for the OMI to be valid.

    Of course none of this is meant to substitute for legal advice. This is just what I remember off the top of my head, but there are many rules that a tenant can use to protect themselves provided they’re armed with the right information. I would go to the Tenants Union to get a lay of the land, and then decide on your best strategy. Maybe you can still fight this. If the OMI isn’t legal, you might even be better off in the long run if you give the landlord more rope and sue them later. Get all the information you can from the legal counselors at the TU, and then decide on your strategy to fight back.

  35. They emphasize the Ellis Act because there are people in San Francisco who truly believe they are entitled to lifetime subsidies from other private citizens.

  36. Oh sure there’s still plenty of buildings with low-rent tenants that are not viable, and therefore should be re-purposed more sustainably. My point was more that the Ellis evictions already done represent the most glaring anomalies.

    I’d say that any building with a gross rental yield of under 4% is vulnerable. It behooves a tenant to do the math and determine how probable an Ellis or OMI eviction is. The best defense to Ellis is paying a decent sensible rent.

  37. There is almost no defense to an owner-move-in or relative move-in eviction. And for good reason too – if rent control prevented an owner or her family from living in a home she owned, then all of rent control might be ruled unconstitutional.

    All you can really do is move and then keep an eye open just in case the daughter doesn’t move in and stay for three years. you may then have a case for monetary compensation.

  38. the most “egregious” low rent buildings already Ellis’d, really? Where do you get this info, your private database of who’s paying what rent at every building in the City? There’s a long way to go before the low hanging fruit is picked….

  39. Greg, not paying your rent isn’t “tiny”, given that it is the entire basis for the resdiency.

    As for breaches of a rental agreement, an opportunity is granted to correct that. A 3-day “cure or quit” notice is typically issued. If the tenant cures the breach then he/she is off the hook. An eviction only happens if they choose not to cure the breach.

    One exception there is for nuisance – that’s a 3-day notice to quit with no opportunity to cure. So if you continually sell illegal drugs from your home, for instance, then there is no warning or grace period.

    no new regulation is therefore required, and what I was suggesting was that tenant advocates engage in some education within their community.

  40. An excellent, thoughtful and carefully researched piece. Thank you. Inspirational as well. If we inform ourselves and support one another we can and will turn back the tide.

  41. “Far, far more tenants lose their homes because of issues with their rent or breaching their lease. Why not work on that instead?”

    I agree. A lot of landlords look for the tiniest pretext to sever the lease. Tenants should be given a fair opportunity to correct any alleged “breaches” before the landlord is allowed to use the ultimate punishment, and this can be mandated by law. I agree that this is regulation that the BOS should pursue.

    Of course one does not preclude the other.

  42. I think you are reading rather too much into month-by-month statistics, which will inevitably be volatile.

    There was a flurry of initiatives in the middle of the year, and I think owners held off because they didn’t want to get whip-sawed by new rules. But as it turned out, all those initiatives failed one way or the other. Now that’s settled, we could see a reversion to the mean in 2015.

    That said, the most egregious low-rent buildings have by now already been Ellis’ed, or else the tenants have been paid off. What we’re seeing now is the next set of buildings that aren’t quite as unviable being targets. And the economics for those are clear, so we might continue to see a slower rate.

    Also note that there was a spike in Ellis evictions after the new condo rules were passed, whereupon owners no longer had any incentive to avoid an Ellis, because they could not condo anyway. That surge passed and we return to the mean.

    Finally, those cases where the tenants “won” an eviction were still rare, and mostly focused on technical issues i.e mistakes in the paperwork. No new defense against Ellis has been successfully adopted. In most if not all of those cases, the owner simply re-files the Ellis eviction with a new corrected notice, and will prevail.

    Ellis evictions have always ran at a fairly low number. I fail to understand why you put so much emphasis on it. Far, far more tenants lose their homes because of issues with their rent or breaching their lease. Why not work on that instead?

  43. It would be nice to imagine greater protection god our elders and others who are bigger targets for speculators. But no one wins because of their age in court – though especially if they are white and middle class, they can in the court of public opinion. People win by standing together and figuring out how speculators and their attorneys didn’t do all their homework. Tenant knowledge, attorneys and public shaming are unfortunately the only remedies it would seem.

  44. so sad… too late for us, though. Gentrification has finally arrived to the outer sunset and we just got notice that our landlady’s daughter “needs to” move into our home by June. Looking for a place in the east bay as we speak.

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