Outside Looking In: The Only Thing Spreading in the “Eviction Epidemic” Is Political Influence

Sometimes, political analysis can be easy.

Take this month's crushing ballot-box defeat of a plan to allow a condo tower for billionaires to be erected at nearly three times the waterfront height limits. Some saw it as a rejection of development — in a city where cranes continue to sprout from other cranes. Some portrayed it as a progressive-friendly spurning of Mayor Ed Lee's agenda — just a year after we obediently voted the Lee line, on issues much more far-reaching and impactful than a single goddamn condo development.

Rather, We the People were asked to go out of our way to enable a bunch of billionaires to bend the rules and build a big, ugly condo on the waterfront. And this was being done right as blaring headlines about an “eviction epidemic” hit the papers.

So, sometimes, political analysis can be easy.

Making progress on that “eviction epidemic?” Less so.

Many years ago, KRON-TV news commenter Wayne Shannon confounded humor-deficient viewers when he came out in favor of dumping radioactive waste in Bay Area ocean waters. His rationale: Someone has to be in favor of this because, you know, we're doing it.

Along similar lines, someone has to be in favor of dumping long-term, often elderly renters onto the street via Ellis Act evictions — because, you know, we're doing it.

Ellis Act evictions seem specially designed to enrage and terrify San Franciscans. The 1985 state law was sold as a means for long-time, aging landlords to get out of the rental business — but has transformed into a means for speculators to buy up buildings full of rent-controlled tenants, boot out everyone, convert the place to ownership properties, and profit obscenely. This enables unambiguous villains of the sort rarely encountered outside of after-school specials, in which cigar-chomping developers wearing three-piece suits and hard-hats swing wrecking balls into orphanages. It's safe to say that this sort of behavior is not in tune with San Francisco values.

It's difficult for laws to regulate an individual's sense of decency — especially when indecency is so profitable and its lobby so influential. San Francisco politicians announced last week, however, that they're gonna give it a shot.

Both Mayor Lee and Supervisor David Campos confirmed plans to combat what they referred to as a burgeoning eviction crisis. All of their suggestions were politically understandable, and many were worthwhile.

Their most substantive goals, however, remain quixotic. And, as ever in this city's quixotic efforts, the safe bet is on the windmills.

A recent Budget Analyst's report quantified every notion you'd ever have about Ellis Act evictions in this city. The most affected neighborhoods are places in which long-term tenants were paying low rents while home prices surged through the roof. The incentive to jettison renters and find buyers was heavy. And, in the most recent 12-month period, 146 percent more Ellis Act evictions were recorded than in the prior 12-month period.

It warrants mentioning that this 146-percent spike encompasses only 96 more recorded evictions in a city stocked with some 116,000 buildings of two-to-nine units. Semantically, the term “epidemic” may be laying it on a bit thick. But that's neither here nor there. There's obviously an uptick of Ellis Act evictions, which few San Franciscans, or their elected representatives, desire. And there are things the city can do, and is doing, on the local level.

But these are measures to deter and delay evictions — not prevent them. In essence, the city gives menaced tenants a pillow, rather than preventing someone from kicking them in the rear end.

Lee and Campos are proposing thicker pillows.

Campos says he hopes the mandatory fee paid to evicted tenants can be doubled, to more than $10,000. Let's hope. Lee's camp has hinted at creating a permitting or regulatory maelstrom meant to make evicting people as onerous, glacial, and maddening as doing anything else in San Francisco. That's a hell of a way to govern — but it'd be nice to see the city's legendary inefficiency finally put to good use.

The mayor also recently announced a tripling of the funds allotted to lawyers defending against Ellis Act evictions. That's all for the good. But the grand handout was only $250,000.

More time for tenants and money for lawyers is nice — but the amount set aside for Ellis Act legal defense is still far less than half what the city spends every year on toilet paper.

In fact, the city tried to deter rapacious landlords years ago, via tightened condo-conversion rules. Units vacated through the Ellis Act are essentially ineligible to be repurposed into lucrative condominiums. This, however, led to the rise of the Tenancy-in-Common — a scenario in which groups of buyers each own a share of a multi-unit structure, leaving everyone on the hook if one or more buyers defaults.

It's a ludicrous situation no sane buyer would desire. But the state of San Francisco real estate defies conventional notions of sanity.

There's nothing too stupid, costly, or risky to keep people from buying in this city.

More and more tenants are being evicted in order to create the TICs that fetch alarming sums. Landlords who talk renters into leaving via a buyout may still convert rent-controlled housing into condos, and profit even more.

So, the only way to truly alter a state law — to stop the kicking — is to go through the Legislature. That's located in Sacramento, just a 90-minute drive from the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Bridge.

Any visitor to Sacramento who remarks upon how the fetid, swamplike nature of the place renders it ill-fitting to serve as state capital is not familiar with how business is done there. Sacramento is the capital we deserve.

Campos' hope that the Legislature will declare an emergency moratorium on Ellis Act evictions in this city and Lee's aim to allow more local control are intriguing ideas. But Sacramento is where intriguing ideas go to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Here's all you need to know: Last year, Sen. Mark Leno proposed a bill that would have imposed penalties upon landlords already found guilty of illegally withholding tenants' deposits. You can't get more straightforward and commonsense than that. Even Alabama has similar laws on its books.

This bill failed.

The city, via Leno, is now hoping to pass far more substantive legislation that would shut down real-estate interests' most lucrative honey pot. In other words, the city is sending the same knights to tilt at even bigger windmills. Good luck to them. But the real-estate lobby remains securely entrenched in Sacramento, and secure in its relationship with Leno's Democratic colleagues.

San Francisco's problems, and those of its miserable old folks demonstrating outside their padlocked apartments, emanate from far beyond city limits. They're in Fresno, in suburban Los Angeles, in places full of tenants whose Democratic representatives answer not to them, but to real-estate interests.

Not surprisingly, landlords have more money than tenants. But there are more tenants.

So, until an organized movement can put state representatives into office accountable to the tenants who elected them, rather than the real-estate organizations that bankrolled them, the evictions won't stop.

San Francisco needs an eviction epidemic. In the Legislature.

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