Debunking SF Mag’s Ellis Act apologist article, point by point

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San Francisco Magazine's "The Power Issue" features Ed Lee front and center.

Well, everyone’s got an opinion. And when it comes to San Francisco’s housing crisis, that’s doubly true.

San Francisco Magazine’s opinion though, amounts to a cry for help for (they say) the oft-demonized landlords from what they call the ever-overblown Ellis Act eviction crisis.

In his Tweet earlier today, San Francisco Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jon Steinberg said “We’re calling BS on San Francisco’s eviction crisis.” The article, by San Fran Mag Web Editor Scott Lucas, lays out a San Francisco that’s hard to recognize, one where evictions and rental increases aren’t displacing people in droves. At least, not enough to qualify as a “crisis.”

Sorry Jon, we’re calling BS on your article.

The Guardian reached out to Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenant’s Union and Erin McElroy, the head of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, to debunk some of the claims made in SF Magazine’s attempt to de-fang the threat of Ellis Act evictions. 

You can read the full article here, but we’ve reproduced lines from the piece and included responses from Gullicksen and McElroy addressing their points one by one. 

San Francisco Magazine The narrative was a straightforward one: Because the Bay Area has seen an influx of people—largely young, white, and working in tech—who need housing (and can pay for it), greedy landlords, many of them out-of-town speculators, are throwing longtime San Franciscans into the streets and turning the city over to gentrification. It looked cut-and-dried.

It’s not. In fact, Ellis Act evictions represent only a small proportion of the city’s total evictions—and they’re not even historically high to begin with. 

Ted Gullicksen That is incorrect on a couple levels. First off, it’s important to understand that the main way people are evicted these ways are via the Ellis Act followed by a buyout. The reason for that is that San Francisco passed strict condominium conversion prohibitions several years ago. If you do an Ellis, you generally are not going to be able to convert to condos ever. 

(You need to) include the Ellis threats… for every single Ellis Act eviction filed with the rent board, they’re where the speculators tried to get the tenants to bite… for every Ellis Act eviction, there are about five buyouts where Ellis Act was used as a club.

I come to that number by the number of people coming to the Tenants Union concerned about buyouts, and comparing those with the rent board’s numbers. Pretty consistently we see 33 percent of what the rent board sees. 

Erin McElroy California is the only state where the Ellis Act is utilized, it’s hard to say whether it’s historically high or not. We also see it’s being utilized by landlords repeatedly. It’s being used as a business model, not a way of going out of business which was its intended use in 1986. 

SFM In the 12-month period ending on February 28, 2013, the total number of Ellis Act evictions was 116—an almost twofold increase over the previous year, but a nearly 70 percent decrease since 2000, when such evictions hit an all-time high of 384. All told, the Ellis Act was behind less than 7 percent of the 1,716 total evictions in the city between February 2012 and February 2013. “Isn’t it far more likely,” asks Karen Chapple, a professor of city planning at UC Berkeley, “that more units are being lost [from the market] through Airbnb?”

TG That number, the 1,716 number, includes “for fault” evictions. If you just include no-fault evictions, Ellis Act evictions are the highest amounts. No-fault evictions are the ones we’re all talking about here. There are a number of rental units lost from the market and that’s a big problem, but the TIC and condominium conversions far surpass tourist conversions (like AirBNB).

EM First of all, for every Ellis Act being recorded, there is not a recording of the units evicted. While you can say there is a number of evictions, it doesn’t represent the units or people being displaced: it doesn’t record the number of people losing their homes.

What we’ve done through the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is to match those petitions with the number of units. If you go to our website you can see the number of units lost since 1997 in each petition. While the city (of San Francisco) only recorded about 1,300 Ellis Act evictions since then, there have been at least 4,000 units lost. We don’t know how many people are in each unit. There could be between 1 and 6 people in each on average. 

SFM Laying the blame on nefarious Rich Uncle Pennybags types isn’t exactly right either. A recent report commissioned by Supervisor David Campos is clear on that point: The increase in Ellis Act evictions, it found, “occurred simultaneously with significant increases in San Francisco housing prices.” In other words, the problem isn’t speculators. It’s the market. 

TG The problem is indeed the speculators. Most of these buyouts are done by speculators, of the current Ellis Act evictions right now, most of the buyouts are done by one of twelve speculators. 

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project showed that these real estate speculators form Limited Liability Corporations for each building. The Anti Eviction Mapping Project went through all these LLC’s and identified actual owners and compared them to Ellis Act evictions at the rent board. One person involved is doing six Ellis evictions right now. 

EM Speculators are taking advantage of the market. If there weren’t people to buy luxury condos, Ellis Act evictors wouldn’t buy up the units and turn them into condos. 

It’s one thing for a landlord to issue an Ellis Act one time because they’re done being a landlord, it’s another to see serial evictors use it over and over again through Limited Liability Corporations. Urban Green has 40 or so LLC’s, they’re using them all to push the Ellis Act. See our serial evictor chart and you’ll see 12 different people that use that serial evictor model. It’s a way for them to make money. 

SFM The city simply doesn’t have enough housing to keep up with job growth. And as real estate values rise, the incentive for a property owner to sell grows considerably. No villainy. Just economics.

TG The city is building a ton of housing, as anyone can tell you. The city, though, is building nothing but luxury condos. There’s plenty of housing, but nothing affordable.

EM If displacing long term residents and folks with disabilities and seniors is just economics, it’d be an argument against our economic system. The city offers services for trans folk, queer folk, people with HIV, all reasons people moved to San Francisco and it has a popular place in people’s imagination. Native San Franciscans are also not being valued. If that’s economics, San Francisco has lost its heart and its soul.

SFM Even if incremental changes happen, San Francisco’s affordability problem will likely continue almost unabated. Ellis Act evictions are, in Chapple’s words, not a cause of the housing crisis, but rather “a symptom. Fixing it is like using a Band-Aid for brain cancer.”

TG The Ellis Act is in fact a cause, because it’s taking thousands of units off the rent control market. When we’re losing more and more rent control units, supply dwindles and the rents go up. 

EM I would agree the Ellis Act isn’t the cause of the problem. The problem is it’s being utilized with other forms of evictions for landlords to take advantage of a political economy with the relationship between the city and tech. The problem is the relationship with the new tech class and the impunity it maintains through city government.