By Thomas K. Pendergast
On Sept. 2, 1976, Linda Joy Johnson moved into a flat on 11th Avenue and has called it home ever since. But, this coming November, the 64-year-old woman might get evicted under the Ellis Act.
City records show the three-unit, 3,050-square-foot building, constructed in 1908, was sold on March 26, 2018 for $1.5 million. The building is under rent control, so that is why Johnson only pays $397 per month to live there.
Soon after the sale, she got a buyout offer from the new landlord, but she couldn’t say how much it was because she had no plans to move. She didn’t want to know.
“I wasn’t going to listen,” said Johnson. “I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
Her income is from Social Security, a part-time dog-walking business and selling her art, which is mostly, but not exclusively, in the form of photo-montages on postcards sold at a video store on Ninth Avenue.
Last November, she was served with an Ellis Act eviction notice.
The Ellis Act is a 1985 statewide law that allows landlords to evict tenants if that landlord decides to go out of the rental business. It is not the same as an owner move-in (OMI) eviction. In the former, the new owner does not need to move into the building, just decide to no longer be a landlord of that building. In the latter, the property owner is evicting the tenant in order to move either themself or close family members into the unit.
Normally, these notices give the tenant 120 days to vacate, but San Francisco law makes more time available for elderly and disabled people who file for extensions. Because of her age, Johnson got the extension and now has until November to find a new home.
Johnson has joined a growing list of long-time San Francisco residents facing possible homelessness under the Ellis Act. City records show a significant increase in Ellis Act evictions during the last couple of years, including the Sunset District.
She said she tried talking her landlord into letting her stay.
“I said ‘I don’t have anywhere to go’ because I don’t,” she said. “This is making me sick, being kicked out. It’s terrifying.
“I don’t have anywhere to put my artwork. I’m going to lose almost everything I have,” she said. “My house is like a museum. People call me and say ‘I have an out-of-town guest coming. Can we please make an appointment to come and see your cool place?’”
Johnson does have family in Illinois, where she was born and raised. She also has a sister in Colorado. She indicated that she is somewhat estranged from her family, although, if her sister lets her, she might be able to move into the basement of her house.
Johnson said she’s been going to workshops and getting lists of senior housing and low income housing opportunities. She has been going to various city agencies to try and get some help but has not received much from any of them.
“I’ve been all around the agencies in San Francisco,” she said. “They just keep referring you to each other and people tell you different things.”
She said someone told her their waiting list for senior housing is three to five years. Someone else told her they are not taking applications because their waiting list is full.
Cynthia Fong, a community organizer at the tenant advocacy and counseling group Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, said OMI evictions were more prevalent before legislation toughening up reporting requirements for OMIs was passed in July, 2017. Since then, there has been a noticeable decline in those types of evictions, but Ellis Act evictions have increased.
“Part of that is because enforcement around the Ellis Act is still not fully there with the City,” Fong said. “A lot of the things that the City would need to do to keep track of Ellis Acts, similar to the (OMI) legislation, would be to require landlords to provide more reporting and more information, especially about the tenants. (Ellis Act evictions are) sort of the easier thing to get away with now.”
Statistics from the San Francisco Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board’s annual eviction notice reports appear to support Fong’s statement, somewhat.
From March, 2016 through February, 2017, there were 127 Ellis Act evictions throughout the City and 397 OMIs. From March, 2017 through February, 2018, however, the report shows 201 Ellis Act evictions and 297 OMIs.
On the other hand, from March, 2018 through February, 2019 Ellis Act evictions actually dropped down to 154, although OMIs also continued to drop, down to 212.
Fernando Marti, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, has a theory.
“I think that you’re seeing a move out into the avenues as our more accessible neighborhoods, like the Mission and Hayes Valley, become quite gentrified,” Marti said. “So, whether it is speculators or simply just actual buyers, they start to look into the next neighborhoods out. When they do an Ellis Act, it means that they are not going to rent out. It doesn’t say anything about reselling as a Tenancy In Common or just reselling as a condominium.
“And then nobody’s tracking if they actually do a renovation and then re-rent. It’s sort of up to the neighbors or the former tenant to go back and check to see that they’re actually violating the law and re-renting; that they didn’t lie,” he said.
Meanwhile, Johnson is grappling with the stresses of needing to move.
“It’s just a horrible, horrible situation to be in,” Johnson said. “And why, at my old age, do I have to spend all my time on this?”