In some ways, Jerrold Jacoby and Daniel and Maria Levin have a lot in common with Beverly Upton and Jacqui Naylor: All five have called San Francisco home for decades and feel part of the fabric of the city.
But they are on opposite sides of one of San Francisco’s most pressing and controversial issues, one with no easy fixes: rental housing.
Jacoby and the Levins are landlords using the Ellis Act to evict longtime tenants to, they say, move family members into their extra housing units. Upton and Naylor are facing Ellis Act evictions and say they will not be able to stay in San Francisco if they are displaced from their home of 20-plus years.
These five people are among the hundreds, perhaps thousands, feeling the effects of a series of laws implemented – with more proposed – by San Francisco policymakers over the past 18 months in an attempt to stem the tide of tenant displacement.
The liberal-leaning Board of Supervisors has passed at least seven laws since last spring geared toward stabilizing the rental market and protecting tenants vulnerable to no-fault evictions, such as those conducted under the state Ellis Act, which lets landlords kick out tenants if they want to exit the rental business.
Several of these laws – including one that dramatically increased the amount of relocation assistance landlords must pay tenants when they evict under the Ellis Act – are being challenged in court. Jacoby and the Levins are among the plaintiffs in those cases.
Another handful of proposals is in the pipeline, including a November ballot measure that seeks to render real estate speculation less attractive by assessing a hefty tax on the sale of a multiunit building within five years of its purchase and a legislative proposal that would regulate the shadowy market of tenant buyouts, in which landlords offer renters sums of cash to vacate a unit.
Laws fail to make dent in market
Yet while landlords and tenants – and their lawyers – fight over the legality of these laws, none seems to be curbing the city’s rapidly rising real estate costs or making a huge dent in the number of tenants being forced to leave San Francisco.
“There are deep reasons why housing in San Francisco is the way it is,” said Jed Kolko, chief housing economist at Trulia, a real estate search and information website. “There is strong demand both because of the job market and growing industries that are here, but also because San Francisco is blessed with natural advantages in terms of its location and its weather. At the same time, there’s tight supply. … (These laws) help the people whom they help … but they don’t do much to make San Francisco more affordable for the future.”
While Ellis Act and other no-fault evictions – under which landlords may evict tenants who have done nothing wrong – make up a small percentage of the city’s roughly 2,000 annual evictions, they have surged in recent years as the housing market has heated up, and become a symbol of the city’s growing inequality.
Between March 1, 2013, and Feb. 28, 2014, there were 216 Ellis Act and 273 owner-move-in eviction notices filed with the city’s rent board – up from 116 and 185 the previous year, and 64 and 127 the year before that. For the year ending Feb. 28, 2010 – the height of the recession – just 43 Ellis Act evictions and 143 owner-move-in evictions were recorded.
Whether any of the new and proposed city laws will impact this part of the housing market remains to be seen – but they are impacting some individuals already.
Struggle over Russian Hill cottage
Jacoby is a fourth-generation San Franciscan – he raised four children here, attended Lowell High School and has deep connections to his Russian Hill neighborhood.
He and his former tenant, Judith Barrett, have been locked for years in a series of nasty legal battles over his desire to evict her from one of the units on his Russian Hill property. Barrett, a public-school teacher, moved into the unit in 1989 and is 62 years old.
Jacoby first attempted to use the city’s owner move-in law – which lets property owners evict tenants so they or a relative can move in – to get Barrett out. Since then, Barrett has taken Jacoby to court over the unit’s conditions and, successfully, to the city’s Rent Board for overcharging her for rent.
Eventually, Jacoby filed an Ellis Act eviction – and while it was pending, Supervisor David Campos’ tenant relocation assistance legislation became law June 1, retroactively bumping up the amount of money Jacoby was required to pay Barrett from around $20,000 to more than $200,000.
In July, Barrett moved out. Shortly after, Jacoby filed a lawsuit against the city and Barrett, saying the relocation statute violates state law, cannot be enforced and unfairly focuses on one type of eviction, making it a “surcharge for invoking a politically disfavored state right.”
Jacoby, who is 79, said he was “astonished” by the law and its required payment. He said he wanted to open up the cottage so his adult daughter can help look after him as he ages.
“I don’t have that much money,” he said. “How can they change the rules of the game just before the game is over?”
Barrett’s lawyer, Joseph Tobener, tells a different story. He said Jacoby has harassed his client for the past three years and should have told Barrett he would be fighting the relocation payment before she moved out. Barrett has now sued Jacoby for wrongful eviction.
“They could have told this family, ‘Look, we are not going to pay the moving allowance. Stay in the unit, and let’s let this settle out in court,’ ” Tobener said.
Couple seek a place to retire
Daniel Levin, a third-generation San Franciscan, and his wife, Maria, are parties to a separate, federal lawsuit over the relocation payments and are in a similar situation as Jacoby.
The couple have owned a small North Beach bed-and-breakfast for 20 years. Semiretired now, they bought a two-unit building in 2008 in the neighborhood.
The Levins filed an Ellis Act eviction in December, saying they want to use the bottom unit for family members. Under city law before the relocation legislation, they would have been on the hook for about $8,600 in relocation assistance; now they are being asked to pay almost $118,000.
Their lawsuit says that the city law violates not only the Ellis Act but the federal Constitution by amounting to a “taking” of private property. The case will go to trial in October.
Maria Levin said the payment would come directly out of their retirement savings and argued that small landlords should be treated differently than speculators who own multiple, large buildings.
“It’s something we can’t afford to do – and it just seems totally unfair, in our situation,” Dan Levin said. “We are not developers, we just want to have our house. … I feel caught up in the political games happening at City Hall.”
But the politicians who supported those laws are looking to help people such as Jacqui Naylor and Beverly Upton, who have lived in a two-unit Hayes Valley building for more than 20 years.
Naylor, a jazz singer, hosts Buddhist chants at her home daily while her husband gives music lessons to children in the unit. Upton, executive director of an anti-domestic-violence organization, sits on numerous official city panels and is one of the first people police and prosecutors call after a domestic violence tragedy.
Relocation payments don’t go far
Their landlord filed an Ellis Act eviction against them in November, and they have been working to find a way to stay since then – including offering to buy the building with help from a community lender. The property owner refused, they said; as of now, they stand to be evicted in November.
Upton and Naylor may benefit from some of the recent city laws and proposals, but say they’d prefer to stay in their home over, say, getting a hefty relocation check or having priority to move into city-funded housing, under a separate law written by Supervisor David Chiu.
Upton said the relocation payment – they still don’t know how much theirs would be – may sound like a lot of money, but it would run out quickly and “is not enough to keep most San Franciscans here.” She said most of the recent proposals are akin to “moving the chess pieces around” and that what really needs to change is the state Ellis Act. A proposal to do that died in Sacramento this year.
“This is our home, and we want to stay here,” Naylor added. “Just offering people money – it helps, but that’s not like having your home and everything you have created. I know we rent and don’t own, but it was good enough for everybody until there was an exorbitant amount of money to be made.”
‘Who’s going to take care of this city?’
Upton wonders what the city will become if people like her, who are deeply involved in the community, can no longer live here.
“Once the artists, musicians and nonprofit people are gone, who’s going to take care of this city, and what kind of city is it going to be?” she said. “San Francisco really depends on people who help carry the load and take care of it.”
Both tenants and property owners believe they are an intrinsic part of San Francisco, and say they just want to keep what they have worked hard to build – their home.
In that way, they are remarkably similar.
Marisa Lagos is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mlagos