Stopping the evictions

In a housing crisis, particularly an affordable-housing crisis, there's a pretty simple axiom that ought to guide city policy: Existing housing is valuable. It's way, way cheaper to keep affordable housing from being lost than it is to build new housing to replace it.

That's why Sup. Chris Daly's legislation to limit some types of condominium conversions is so important – and why the supervisors should consider going even further.

Daly's bill, which cleared the Land Use Committee Dec. 14 and will go before the full board Jan. 3, is aimed at the rash of evictions of low-income tenants whose apartments are turned into condominiums. The way the state's Ellis Act works, any landlord has the right to go out of business – that is, to stop renting housing units – and to evict all of his or her tenants. That leaves the building vacant and allows the landlord to sell it to people – generally better-off people – who want to buy their units as tenancies in common. In a lot of cases, the TIC owners then turn around and apply for permission to convert their apartments to condos.

Turning a rental property into a TIC is profitable. Turning a TIC into a condo is more profitable. The whole loop yields huge chunks of money for landlords, real estate speculators, realtors, and landlord lawyers – and cuts deeply into the city's stock of affordable rental housing.

It's a politically tricky situation because TICs are often the only way that people who have some money but aren't rich can afford to buy a home in San Francisco – so the TIC cycle pits low-income or middle-class tenants against upper-middle-class people who can't afford a million-dollar home. It's an ugly situation made worse by city policy, and Daly is taking a solid step toward addressing it.

Daly's legislation would require real estate agents to disclose to buyers and potential buyers the fact that a TIC unit has been created by evicting a senior, disabled, or low-income tenant. That's helpful: Some well-meaning San Franciscans will refuse to buy a unit that came on the market at the expense of a needy tenant, and the prices of those units will come down a bit, making eviction somewhat less profitable.

More important, Daly wants to require that condo conversions involving two, three, or four units (and that's most TICs) go before the Planning Commission – and that the commission enforce a 24-year-old law that bars conversions that involved evicting a protected class of tenants.

If the commission actually follows those rules, then Daly's bill would have an immediate dampening effect on the most serious, and dangerous, Ellis Act TIC evictions. The supervisors should approve it, and Mayor Newsom (whose housing policy these days consists largely of promoting new million-dollar units) should show that he has some sense of the city's desperate housing shortage and sign it.

But we'd go even further.

The Ellis Act is a disaster. It undermines the basic principle that housing is a human right, not just a commodity, and, in the name of giving landlords the "right" to stop being landlords (which they already have, by the way – anyone who's sick of being in the rental business can sell his or her rental property and, these days, get a tidy profit on the deal), the law has legitimized thousands of evictions all over the state. It was aimed at hacking a hole in local rent-control and anti-eviction laws, and it's done exactly that.

Unfortunately, whatever activists in San Francisco say, the state legislature is still too friendly with the landlord lobby, and there's no way the Ellis Act is going to be repealed. So it ought to be San Francisco's goal to do as much as possible to render the law ineffective in this town.

One way: Make any building that was emptied of tenants – any tenants – under the Ellis Act permanently ineligible for any condo conversion permit. Another option: Charge a conversion application fee for any Ellis Act building, high enough (say, $50,000) that it would take much of the financial incentive out of evicting people.

There may be other approaches, too – a good start would be for the supervisors to ask the City Attorney's Office to research every possible legal means to block, tax, regulate, or discourage Ellis Act evictions.

It costs a fortune in taxpayer money to build affordable housing. The city has already spent hundreds of millions just trying to keep up with the housing that's been lost to greedy landlords and speculators. Daly is absolutely on the right track – stopping the evictions in the first place is a much better affordable-housing plan – and the board should use his legislation as the launching pad for an all-out assault on evictions in 2006.