Back when the tsunami of condo conversions now rolling across San Francisco was but a ripple on the rental pool, local resident William Johnston didn't know "the ins and outs of the Ellis Act."
"Now I have a Ph.D. in it," jokes Johnston, 70, about the legislation allowing landlords to get out of the rental market, which has been increasingly abused over the past decade by landlords wishing to sell their buildings in a scheme known as tenancy-in-common.
Under the TIC system, tenants share the same mortgage but live in their own unit, which they usually hope to convert to an individually owned condo. And it was a letter proposing a TIC in the 10-unit rent-controlled building where Johnston has lived for 33 years that finally got the feisty septuagenarian to start learning about the Ellis Act in detail.
"That letter scared the crap out of me," says Johnston, who was shocked when a real estate agent claimed that the one-bedroom unit, for which Johnston pays $512 a month, would fetch half a million dollars if it were converted into a condo ... if only Johnston could pony up $90,000 for a down payment.
Johnston was relieved when none of his fellow tenants took his landlord's TIC bait, but they're all worried the landlord plans to put the building up for sale anyway. So he's closely following the latest chapter in the Board of Supervisors' effort to protect renters like him.
On May 9 the board gave an initial 7–3 approval to a measure that would prevent condo conversions in buildings where seniors, the disabled, the catastrophically ill, or multiple tenants have been evicted.
Three previous board efforts to help tenants have been vetoed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, so Sup. Aaron Peskin heeded input from the Mayor's Office and amended the measure to move the cutoff date for considering evictions from Jan. 1, 1999, to May 1, 2005.
That change, and the fact that he'd been getting public pressure from renters, apparently won the support of Sup. Bevan Dufty, who had voted to uphold Newsom's vetoes of the previous renter measures. But with Sup. Ross Mirkarimi forced to abstain because he owns a TIC, the board is still left one vote shy of being able to override a veto.
The date change could affect renters like Debra Hutzer, who is disabled by thyroid problems and whose eviction papers were filed January 2005, forcing her to move on May 13, 2006, from the rent-controlled apartment on Church Street where she's lived for 19 years to a place where she's already paying $250 more a month.
"It's been very disconcerting," says Hutzer of the eviction, which one of her neighbors, Carole Fanning, may now fight. Fanning is also supposed to leave, but she's now hired an attorney to fight for "a stay of execution" that would allow her to remain in her rent-controlled unit.
"It's possible, since seniors, disabled, and the catastrophically ill have one year from the date their eviction notice was served, that some may yet be able to convince landlords not to proceed," Peskin board aide David Owen told us.
As for the watering down of Peskin's original measure, Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union says the alternative was to put a version backdated to November 2004 on the November ballot — a strategy that would have involved taking risks on an initiative that, even if it had passed, wouldn't have gone into law until January 2007.