Lawsuits over SF housing protections just the beginning

The two lawsuits filed over two recently adopted housing laws in San Francisco are likely the opening salvo in an escalating war about tenant rights. And despite the pushback by property-owner groups and real estate interests, city leaders should work to protect existing housing stock for low- and middle-income residents as much as they can under the law.

Both pieces of legislation have come under attack — one lawsuit was filed by the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute and another was filed by the San Francisco Apartment Association, the Coalition for Better Housing and the San Francisco Association of Realtors. They were passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in December and signed into law by Mayor Ed Lee.

One of the pieces of legislation prohibits the owner of a multiunit building from combining units for 10 years after an Ellis Act eviction or for five years after an owner move-in eviction. The lawsuit argues that the San Francisco legislation violates owners’ rights that are protected under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows for the eviction of tenants in order to get out of the rental business. San Francisco lawmakers say the two pieces of legislation were fully vetted by the City Attorney’s Office and are defensible in court.

But the fight over seemingly small pieces of San Francisco legislation is just the beginning. There are more pieces of tenant-rights legislation in the works, a movement by advocates to put an item of some sort on an upcoming ballot, and a move by San Francisco state legislators, with the backing of Mayor Ed Lee, to push for reform of the Ellis Act at the state level. The latter effort is, according to state Sen. Mark Leno, a push to clarify that the Ellis Act was meant to protect landlords and not real estate speculators.

There likely will always be pressures on multiunit rental buildings in The City to be converted into for-sale units, since investing in a building and changing the use is much less expensive than buying land, paying an architect for the design work, getting a project through the approval process and then constructing the building. But there is also a strong argument for San Francisco to work to slow the land rush that disproportionately displaces low- and middle-income residents in The City, although it has been shown that no income level is immune to evictions.

As The San Francisco Examiner reported in Sunday’s paper, roughly 25 percent of Ellis Act evictions for San Francisco properties occur within two years of a property purchase. While not conclusive to the talk about speculators swooping into San Francisco, buying buildings and evicting the tenants, the figures show there are people coming in with the sole intention of removing the building from the rental market.

Some voices in the community have dwelled on linguistic hair-splitting as to whether San Francisco is in an eviction crisis — with the debate being over the word “crisis” — since there are fewer Ellis Act evictions than there were during the last dot-com boom in the early 2000s. And though Ellis Act evictions are down from the historic high, they have increased at the same time that the housing crunch hit — accompanied by rents that sent The City’s prices to the highest in the nation — which was driven by a recovering economy.

The solution for below-market-rate housing in San Francisco needs to be multipronged, but one part of it should be a push by lawmakers to use legislation to maintain the existing low- and middle-income housing stock — and that means many more battles ahead, from which they should not shy.

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