In his State of the City address last week, Mayor Ed Lee cheerfully characterized San Francisco as "the new gravitational center of Silicon Valley." He touted tech-sector job creation. "We have truly become the innovation capital of the world," Lee said, "home to 1,800 tech companies with more than 42,000 employees — and growing every day."
From a purely economic standpoint, San Francisco is on a steady climb. But not all residents share the mayor's rosy outlook. Shortly after Lee's speech, renowned local author Rebecca Solnit published her own view of San Francisco's condition in the London Review of Books. Zeroing in on the Google Bus as a symbol of the city's housing affordability crisis, she linked the influx of high-salaried tech workers to soaring housing costs. With rents trending skyward, she pointed out, the dearth of affordable housing is escalating a shift in the city's cultural fabric.
"All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists," Solnit wrote. "It has become increasingly unaffordable over the past quarter-century, but still has a host of writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics and others who don't work sixty-hour weeks for corporations — though we may be a relic population."
The issue of housing in San Francisco is highly emotional, and there is perhaps no greater flashpoint in the charged debate than Ellis Act evictions.
When the housing market bounces upward, Ellis Act evictions tend to hit long-term tenants whose monthly payments, protected by rent control, are a comparative bargain. Even if they've submitted every payment on time and upheld every lease obligation for 20 years, these renters can find themselves in the bind of being forced out.
And they don't just lose their homes; often they lose their community. San Francisco has become so expensive that many Ellis Act victims are tossed out of this city for good.
Enacted in 1986, the state law allows a landlord to stop renting units, evict all tenants, and sell the building for another purpose. Originally construed as a way for landlords to "go out of business" and move into their properties, the Ellis Act instead gained notoriety as a driving force behind a wave of evictions that slammed San Francisco during the tech boom of the late 90s. Between 1986 and 1995, just 29 Ellis evictions were filed with the San Francisco Rent Board; in the 1999-2000 fiscal year alone, that number ballooned to a staggering 440.
Under the current tech heyday, there are indications that Ellis Act evictions are gaining fresh momentum. The San Francisco Rent Board recorded 81 this past fiscal year, more than double that of the previous year, and there appears to be an upward trend.
Buildings cleared via the Ellis Act are typically repackaged as tenancies-in-common (TIC), where several buyers jointly purchase a multi-unit residence and each occupy one unit. Realtors often market TICs as a path to homeownership for moderate-income individuals, creating an incentive for buyers to enter into risky, high-interest shared mortgages in hopes of later converting to condos with more attractive financing.
The divide between TIC owners and renters came into sharp focus at a contentious Jan. 28 hearing, when a Board of Supervisors committee met to consider legislation that would allow some 2,000 TIC units to immediately convert to condos without having to wait their turn in a requisite lottery system.
One TIC owner said he was financially burdened, but had only entered into the arrangement because "I wanted to stay here and raise my family, but we couldn't afford a single family home." Yet tenants brought their own set of concerns to the table, saying the temptation to create TICs was putting a major dent in the city's finite stock of rent-controlled units — the single greatest source of affordable housing in San Francisco.
"My feeling is, let's stop doing TICs," Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a tenants right activist with the Housing Rights Committee, told the Guardian following the hearing. "The city has to just start making sure that the condos that are built are the kind of thing [TIC buyers] can afford. Instead, we cannibalize our rental stock? That's a reasonable way? You evict one group of people to house another: How does that make sense?"
The grueling five-hour hearing illustrated the sad fact that San Franciscans in a slightly better economic position were being pitted against economically disadvantaged renters. The two groups were bitterly divided, and all seemed weary, furious, and frustrated by their housing situations.
The condo-conversion legislation, co-sponsored by Sups. Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell, did not move forward that day. Instead, Board President David Chiu made a motion to table the discussion until Feb. 25, to provide time for "an intensive negotiation process." Chiu, who rents his home, added: "While I myself would like to become a homeowner someday ... I do not support the legislation in its current form."
Sup. Jane Kim sought to appeal to the tenants as well as the TIC owners. "It's very tragic that we have set up a situation where [TICs and renters] are pitted against one another," she said. She hinted at what a possible alternative to might look like. "We should be looking at a ban of scale," she said. "If we allow 1,800 potential units to go thru this year, are we willing to do a freeze for the next 8 to 10 years?"
It's unclear what will happen in the next few weeks, but if this legislation makes it back to the full board in some form, the swing votes are expected to be Sups. London Breed, Malia Cohen and Norman Yee.
CASH OR EVICTION?
New protections were enacted following the late-90s frenzy to discourage real-estate speculators from using the Ellis Act to turn a profit on the backs of vulnerable seniors or disabled tenants. Yet a new wave of investors has discovered they can persuade tenants to leave voluntarily, simply by offering buyouts while simultaneously wielding the threat of an Ellis Act eviction. "The process got more sophisticated," explains San Francisco Rent Board Deputy Director Robert Collins.
Once a tenant has accepted a check in lieu of eviction, rent-controlled units can be converted to market rate, or refurbished and sold as pricey condos, without the legal hindrances of an eviction blemish. Buyouts aren't recorded with the Rent Board, and the agency has no real guidance for residents faced with this particular dilemma. "We don't have the true number on buyouts," says Mecca. "We don't know how many people have left due to intimidation."
Identity-wise, renters impacted by the Ellis Act defy categorization. A contingent of monolingual Chinese residents rallied outside City Hall recently to oppose legislation they believed would give rise to evictions; in the Mission, many targeted tenants are Latinos who primarily speak Spanish. From working immigrants, to aging queer activists, to disabled seniors, to idealists banding together in collective houses, the affected tenants do have one thing in common. When landlords or real-estate speculators perceive that their homes are more valuable unoccupied, their lives are susceptible to being upended by forces beyond their control.
The upshot of San Francisco's affordability crisis is a cultural blow for a city traditionally regarded as tolerant, forward thinking, and progressive. In the words of Rose Eger, a musician who faces an Ellis Act eviction from her apartment of 19 years, "it changes the face of who San Francisco is.
Out of the Castro
You can't get much more Castro than Jeremy Mykaels. The 62-year old moved to the neighborhood in the early 1970s, fleeing raids at gay bars in Denver. He played in a rock band, worked at the old Jaguar Books, watched the rise of Harvey Milk, saw the neighborhood transform and made it his home.
He's lived in a modest apartment on Noe Street for 17 years, and for the past 11 has been living with AIDS. Rent control has made it possible for Mykaels, who survives on disability payments, to remain in this city, in his community, close to the doctors at Davis Hospital who, he believes, have saved his life.
And now he's going to have to leave.
In the spring of 2011, his longtime landlords sold the building to a real-estate investment group based in Union City — and the new owners immediately sought to get rid of all the tenants. Two renters fled, knowing what was coming; Mykaels stuck around. In September of 2012, he was served with an eviction notice, filed under the state's Ellis Act.
He's a senior, he's disabled, his friends are mostly dead and his life is in his community — but none of that matters. The Ellis Act has no exceptions.
Mykaels spent a fair amount of his life savings fixing up his place. The walls are beige, decorated with nice art. Dickens the cat, who is chocolate brown but looks black, wanders in and out of the small bedroom. Mykaels has been happy there and never wanted to leave; "this," he told me, "is where I thought I would live the rest of my life."
There's no place in the Castro, or even the rest of the city, where he can afford to move. Small studios start at $2,500 a month, which would eat up all of his income. There is, quite literally, nowhere left for him to go.
"A lot of my friends have died, or moved to Palm Springs," he said. "But this is where my doctors are and where I'm comfortable. I'm not going to find a support system like this anywhere else in the world."
Mykaels is the face of San Francisco, 2013, a resident who is not part of the mayor's grand vision for bringing development and high-paying jobs into the city. As far as City Hall is concerned, he's collateral damage, someone whose life will have to be upended in the name of progress.
But Mykaels isn't going easily. The former web designer has created a site — ellishurtsseniors.org — that lists not only his address (460 Noe) and the names of the new owners (Cuong Mai, William H. Young and John H. Du) but the addresses of dozens of other properties that are facing Ellis Act evictions. His message to potential buyers: Boycott.
"Do not buy properties where seniors or the disabled have been evicted for profit by real estate speculators using the Ellis Act," the website states.
Mykaels is a demon researcher — his site is a guide to 31 properties with 94 units where seniors or disabled people are being evicted  under the Ellis Act. In some cases, individuals or couples are filing the eviction papers, but at least 14 properties are owned by corporations or trusts.
Mai told me that he knew a disabled senior was living in the building when he and his two partners bought it, but he said his plan all along was to evict all the tenants and turn the three-unit place into a single-family house. He said he hasn't decided yet whether to sell building; "I might decide to live there myself." (Of course, if he wanted to live there himself, he wouldn't need the Ellis Act.)
Mai said he "felt bad about the whole situation," and he had offered to buy Mykaels out. The offer, however, wouldn't have covered more than a few months of market rent anyplace else in the Castro.
By law, Mykaels can stay in his apartment until September. If he can't stave off the eviction by then, San Francisco will lose another longtime member of the city community.
Dark days in the Inner Sunset
The living room in Rose and Willie Eger's Inner Sunset apartment is where Rose composes her songs and Willie unwinds after playing baseball in Golden Gate Park. Faded Beatles memorabilia and 45 records adorn the walls, and a prominently displayed poster of Jimi Hendrix looms above a row of guitar cases and an expansive record collection.
It's a little worn and drafty, but the couple has called this 10th Ave. apartment home for 19 years. Now their lives are about to change. On Jan. 5, all the tenants in their eight-unit building received notice that an Ellis Act eviction proceeding had been filed against them.
"The music that I do is about social and political things," explains Rose, dressed from head-to-toe in hot pink with a gray braid swinging down her back. Determined to derive inspiration from this whole eviction nightmare, she's composing a song that plays with the phrase "tenants-in-common."
Cindy Huff, the Egers' upstairs neighbor, says she began worrying about the prospect of eviction when the property changed hands last summer. Realtor Elba Borgen, described as a "serial evictor" in online news stories because she's used the Ellis Act to clear several other properties, purchased the apartment building last August, through a limited liability corporation. The notice of eviction landed in the mailbox less than six months later. (Borgen did not return Guardian calls seeking comment.)
"With the [average] rent being three times what most of us pay, there's no way we can stay in the city," Huff says. "The only option we would have is to move out of San Francisco." She retired last year following a 33-year stint with UCSF's human resources department. Now, facing the prospect of moving when she and her partner are on fixed incomes, she's scouring job listings for part-time work.
The initial notice stated that every tenant had to vacate within 120 days, but several residents are working with advocates from the Housing Rights Committee in hopes of qualifying for extensions. Huff and the Egers are all in their fifties, but some tenants are seniors—including a 90-year-old Cuban woman who lives with her daughter, and has Alzheimer's disease.
Willie works two days a week, and Rose is doing her best to get by with earnings from musical gigs. Both originally from New York City, they've lived in the city 35 years. When they first moved to the Sunset, it resembled something more like a working-class neighborhood, where families could raise kids. The recent tech boom has ushered in a transformation, one that Rose believes "changes the face of who San Francisco is." Willie doesn't mince words about the mess this eviction has landed them in. "I call it 'Scam-Francisco,'" he says.
The trio recently joined tenant advocates in visiting Sup. Norman Yee, their district supervisor, to tell their stories. Yee, who is expected to be one of the swing votes on an upcoming debate about condo-conversion legislation vehemently opposed by tenant activists, reportedly listened politely but didn't say much.
As for what the next few months have in store for the Egers? "I can't really visualize the outcome," Rose says. "I can only visualize the day-to-day fight. And that's scary."
Fighting for a home in the Mission
Eleven years ago, Olga Pizarro fell in love with Ocean Beach. A native of Peru who was living in Canada, she visited the Bay Area, saw the water and decided she would never leave.
Fast forward to today and she's built a home in the Mission, renting a small room in a basement flat on Folsom Street. The 55-year-old has lived in the building for eight years; polio has left her wearing a leg brace and she can't climb stairs very well, but she still rides her bike to work at the Golden Gate Regional Center. She's a sociologist by training; the walls in her room are lined with bookshelves, with hundreds of books in Spanish and English.
The place isn't fancy, and it needs work, but it's hard to find a ground-floor apartment in the Mission that's affordable on a nonprofit worker's salary. Since 2011, when she moved in, she and her three housemates have been protected by rent control. And Pizarro's been happy; "I love the neighborhood," she told me.
The letter warning of a pending eviction arrived Jan. 16. A new owner of the building wants to turn the place into tenancies in common and is prepared to throw everyone out under the Ellis Act. There's no place else in town for Pizarro to go.
"I've looked and looked," she said. "The cheapest places are $2,500 a month or more. Maybe I'll have to move out of the city."
Pizarro's building is owned by Wai Ahead, LLC, a San Francisco partnership registered to Carol Wai and Sean Lundy. I couldn't reach Wai or Lundy, but their attorney, Robert Sheppard, had plenty to say. "San Francisco is going the way of New York," he told me. "Manhattan is full of co-ops that used to be rentals, and lower-income people are moving to Brooklyn and Queens. That's happening here with Oakland and further out." He argued that TICs, like co-ops, provide home-ownership opportunities for former renters.
Sheppard, who for years represented tenants in eviction cases, said the Ellis Act is law, and America is a capitalist country, and "as long as there is a private housing market, there will be shifts of people as the housing market shifts." He agreed that it's not good for lower-income people to lose their homes, but "the poor will always be hurt by a changing economy. It's called evolution."
Pizarro told me she's shocked at how expensive housing has become in the Mission. "It's gotten so gentrified," she said. "People show up in their BMWs. It's starting to feel very isolated."
She's fighting the eviction. "I didn't intend it to be this way," she explained. "I just want to live here." Lacking any family in the area, the Mission has become her community — "and I'm frustrated by the violence of how expensive it is."
Affordability goes out of style
Hester Michael is a fashion designer, and her home doubles as a project space for creating patterns, sewing custom clothing, weaving cloth, and painting. She's lived in her Outer Sunset two-bedroom unit for almost two decades, but now she faces an Ellis Act eviction. Michael says she initially received notice last June. The timing was awful -– that same month, her husband passed away after a long battle with terminal illness.
"I've been here 25 years. My friends are here, and my business. I don't know where else to go, or what else to do," she says. "I just couldn't picture myself anywhere else."
Michael rents the upstairs unit of a split single-family home, a kind of residence that normally isn't protected by rent control. Yet she leased the property in 1994, getting in under the wire before that exemption took effect. Since she pays below-market-rate rent in a home that could be sold vacant for top dollar, a target was essentially inscribed on her back when the property changed hands in 2004. That's about when her long battle with the landlords began, she says.
From the get-go, her landlords indicated that she should look for a new place, Michael says, yet she chose to remain. The years that followed brought things falling into disrepair, she says, and a string of events that caused her feel intimidated and to fear eviction. Finally, she consulted with tenant advocates and hired an attorney. A complaint filed in superior court alleges that the property owners "harassed and retaliated [Michael] when she complained about the defective and dangerous conditions ...telling [her] to move out of the property if she did not like the dangerous conditions thereat ... repeatedly making improper entries into [the] property, and wrongfully accusing [her] of causing problems."
Records show that Angela Ng serves as attorney in fact for the property owner, Ringo Chung Wai Lee. Steven Adair MacDonald, an attorney who represents both landlords and tenants in San Francisco housing disputes, represents the owners. "An owner of a single family home where the rent is controlled and a fraction of market has virtually no other choice but to terminate the tenancy," MacDonald said when the Guardian reached him by phone. "They've got to empty it, and the only way to empty it is the Ellis Act."
While Michael received an extension that allows her to remain until June 5, she fears her custom sewing business, Hester's Designs, will suffer if she has to move. There's the issue of space. "I have so much stuff in this house," she says. And most of her clients are currently located close by, so she doesn't know where her business would come from if she had to relocate. "A lot of my clients don't have cars," she says, "so if I live in some suburb in the East Bay, forget it. I'll lose my business."
The prospect of eviction has created a major dilemma for Michael, who first moved to San Francisco in 1987. While moving to the East Bay seems untenable, she says renting in San Francisco feels out of reach. "People are renting out small, tiny bedrooms for the same price as I pay here," she says. With a wry laugh, she adds: "I don't think there's any vacant apartments in San Francisco -– unless you're a tech dude and make seven grand a month."