Weathering The Storm: An Update On San Francisco Housing


Over the last couple months Civinomics has been conducting an outreach campaign in San Francisco, taking our trusty iPads and walking around neighborhoods to get input about what new green infrastructure residents would like to see in their communities. It’s a fairly non-controversial topic, people are generally  pro more green stuff in the city (“I want it right by my house!”), and so it’s been an enjoyable project overall.

But I won’t forget the very first person I interviewed. I was in the inner Richmond and after ringing the doorbell a guy who looked to be in his mid 20s greeted me. I gave him the standard rap and he agreed to take the survey. So we sat down on the stairs outside his apartment and were midway through talking about the different types of green infrastructure that he could rank when he said, “Well, a lot of this probably doesn’t apply to me I think.”

“How come?”

“I’m actually going to be leaving the area soon. I just got evicted.”

I sat there, stunned. “Oh,” I stammered, “wow, I’m sorry!”

He gave a rueful smile. “Yah, it’s ok. Cool survey, though.”

We continued to talk and indeed here was another victim of the Ellis Act. The Ellis Act is a California law passed in 1985 which allows landlords to evict tenants in order to get out of the residential rental business. The act has been applied, shall we say, frequently in San Francisco over the last several years – between 2010 and 2013, Ellis Act evictions have risen over 170%. This is largely due to a perfect storm of housing trends in the city: there has been a surge in demand to live here but due to San Francisco’s complex approval process construction of new housing has remained at a snail’s pace, causing prices to skyrocket. This past June the median price paid for a new or existing single family home or condo topped $1 million, while the average rent in the city hit $3,229. (Hope you were sitting down just now). And to take advantage of these incredible prices, speculators have been buying up residential complexes, evicting tenants, and developing the buildings into either tenancy in common or condominium housing, neither of which is subject to rent control.

Eviction headlines have become an all too common feature of San Francisco newspapers lately, one recent story involving 98 year-old-resident Mary Elizabeth Phillips, who was nearly kicked out of the apartment she had lived in for 50 years. The property owner, Urban Green Investments, eventually relented, saying they would allow her to live there for the rest of her life, but have otherwise evicted nearly everyone else from the building. Without the support of the community that had once existed there, it is unclear whether it will be feasible for Ms. Phillips to stay.

Meanwhile, protests against the slew of evictions, the rising cost of living, and gentrification have erupted across the Bay Area. These have largely been targeted at the technology industry, with demonstrators staging tirades outside offices and barricading tech busses.

All this has sent San Francisco’s political leaders scrambling to find solutions. Virtually every one of them has come out with with bold statements about how there needs to be reform and that the city must become more affordable. So now that more than six months have passed since Mayor Ed Lee stood in front of a construction site in Hunters Point and declared “a genuine crisis” in housing, where do we stand? What action has been taken and what has been accomplished?

Many of the city’s leaders mounted efforts in the past several months to address the housing crisis, some with more success than others. State Senator Mark Leno introduced legislation that would force landlords to own a residential building for at least five years before using the Ellis Act to evict tenants. This would have made flipping residential buildings substantially less feasible. His legislation, broadly supported by San Francisco leaders, made it through the State Senate in May, but failed to garner the necessary votes while it was in committee in the Assembly. Leno has vowed to continue fighting for this reform, insisting he will bring it back up for a vote early next year.

Second piece of bad news – Assemblymember Tom Ammiano proposed legislation in February that would have allowed local jurisdictions to place moratoriums on Ellis Act evictions when the state’s mandated affordable housing quotas aren’t met. The bill met stiff opposition from landlord advocacates, however, and failed to pass the Assembly in April. A press release from the California Apartment Association crowed, “CAA Kills Ammiano’s anti-Ellis Act bill.”

While efforts in Sacramento have hit a brick wall, locally the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has had a little more success. Back in April, the Board passed legislation by Supervisor David Campos that requires property owners who evict tenants using the Ellis Act to pay the difference between the tenant’s current rent and what they would have to pay for a similar apartment for two years. Before, landlords had to pay roughly $5,200 in relocation fees. Now the San Francisco Controller’s office estimates that someone paying $900 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment in the Mission would be eligible for up to $44,000. Campos’s legislation passed the Board with a veto-proof 9-2 vote, but now faces a court challenge from the San Francisco Apartment Association.

And then there was Mayor Lee’s state of the city pledge to build or refurbish 30,00 residential units by 2020 – whatever happened with that?

Last Tuesday the Board of Supervisors approved a November ballot measure that packages a number of housing goals for voter approval. Included are Lee’s ambitious development proposal, with the added provision that there be an annual review of the housing pipeline to ensure that at least 30% of new developments are affordable to lower and middle income residents. The measure would also formally direct the mayor and supervisors to create a funding plan towards preserving existing rental units, bringing new affordable housing online, and rehabilitating dilapidated public housing complexes.

So the upshot of all this: stay tuned. There doesn’t appear to be any major reforms to the Ellis Act coming soon, though we’ll see what Senator Leno’s next moves are. And if voters approve the ballot measure in November, expect to see a lot more cranes in the skyline.

But even if a course has been plotted, don’t kid yourself that we’re through this storm yet.


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  1. […] have any ties to the Bay Area it’s extremely likely that you are at least somewhat aware of what has been going on in San Francisco. With all of the Google Bus protests and cries of gentrification, or the huge increases in the […]

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