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Ellis Act protesters blast real estate speculators as tenants face eviction

With San Francisco’s eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of this year, a contentious state law came under fire again Monday as dozens of protesters gathered in front of 3661 19th Street to oppose the eviction of 20 long-term tenants. 

The Ellis Act is a 1985 California state law that allows landlords to evict tenants if that landlord decides to go out of the rental business and quit altogether. It is not the same as an owner move-in eviction. Under the Ellis Act, the new owner is not required to move into the building — they just decide they no longer want to be in business as a landlord.  

But critics who call for the law’s repeal say real estate companies and speculators use it to evict long-term tenants before “flipping” the property to resell it for a profit. Use of the Ellis Act has become an increasingly popular means of getting rid of tenants in rent-controlled apartments who stand in the way.  

Speaking from the sidewalk in front of the 19th Street building during the rally, San Francisco District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said:

“It is a cancer on this City, speculation and the evictions that speculation brings. … There are two things that need to happen to fix this problem. One, Sacramento needs to finally deal with the Ellis Act.”  

Like many at Monday’s rally, Mandelman wants to see the law repealed, however, he acknowledged that the change is unlikely as long as the real estate industry retains its heavy influence across the state.   

As an interim measure, the supervisor discussed a bill currently being considered in the California State Assembly that would adjust rules within the law to make it harder for speculators to evict tenants.  

He said:

“There’s a middle step that the legislature should not have to fear to take and that they should be willing to do, which is simply to ask that when somebody buys a building they hang onto it for a little while before they do an Ellis Act eviction.”   

Mandelman was referring to Assembly Bill 854, which would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants under the Ellis Act if any of the property owners have owned their building for less than five continuous years, or 10 years if they previously used the law to evict tenants from another building. It would prohibit landlords from acting “in concert” with a co-owner, successor owner, prospective owner, agent, employee or assignee to circumvent these provisions. 

He said:

“So that’s a very, very basic thing that must get done. Repeal the Ellis Act or short of that make the owners hang onto the property for a while. We have to stop the speculation in San Francisco because it is devastating our communities.” 

Housing advocates gathered at the protest claim current owners of the 19th Street property failed once before to evict tenants under the Ellis Act, so they tried again in October 2020. Because many of the tenants are seniors and people with disabilities, a 12-month extension was granted but an unlawful detainer was filed with the Superior Court. Just after the protest ended Monday, the tenants were served with eviction notices.  

The tenants and protesters also claim that a group of trusts and an investment LLC that own the property have already evicted tenants from another building.  

Attempts to contact the owners or their representatives for comment on this story were not successful by press time.  

Paul Mooney is one of the tenants now under threat of eviction. 

Mooney said:

“We’re being targeted by the Ellis Act, by speculators. They’re from out of town. They own other buildings. They’re doing this to other people and it’s time to repeal the Ellis Act; stop letting this happen in our neighborhoods, to our communities.”  

Lynn Nielsen-Bohlman, who has lived in her unit for more than a decade, also worries about being uprooted. She said:  

“If I lose my rent-controlled apartment I will have to leave not just San Francisco but the entire Bay Area to find a place where I can afford to live. And over the 10 years, 10 incredibly difficult years, I’ve made friends here and found a support group and I’ll just have to do that all over again.”  

Deepa Varma, a housing rights activist with Tenants Together, came out Monday to support the residents facing eviction and said:

“You did nothing wrong and we’re here to let you know you deserve your home. We’re here to fight with you. Please continue to share your stories so we can fight for every tenant in San Francisco to be able to have decent, dignified affordable housing.” 

Yasmine Mortazavi of the activist group Cancel The Rents laid out an ambitious wish list for improvements in tenant protections, saying:  

“The speculators evicting these tenants are prioritizing selling at high market prices, when what should be prioritized is people’s lives. … We need to keep these houses full and not play investment games with them.  

“That’s why we at Cancel The Rents demand a stop to the evictions, not just here but nationwide,” she said. “We demand that the houseless be housed; that no one gets put on the streets. We demand that the banks should keep people in their homes and that the people should not have to pay back accumulated rent. Rent relief should be made available and accessible to all people.”  

Mortazavi added:

“So, cancel the rent debt, extend the eviction moratorium and end the Ellis Act.” 

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