As San Francisco continues to hurt for available rental units and rising rents are pushing out many longtime residents, one family in Nob Hill became the face of the staggering number of Ellis Act evictions in recent years. After being served with a notice of eviction a year ago, the Lee family — an elderly Chinese-American couple and their disabled daughter — were unable to find another home for the enviable $778 per month they currently pay on the rent controlled three-bedroom they've lived in since 1979.
Every other tenant in the eight-unit building at the corner of Jackson and Larkin have vacated their apartments since building owner Matthew Miller offered buyouts and gave them all a year to find a new place. On Wednesday, Sheriffs deputies were expected to serve the final vacate order for the Lees. The deputies never showed up yesterday, but roughly 200 protesters and community activists did make an imposing presence in front of the building, risking arrest in order to stop the Lee's eviction.
Speaking in Cantonese through an interpreter 73-year-old Gum Gee Lee told the Examiner earlier this week, "We raised our family here and we paid rent for more than 30 years. This new landlord knew we lived here when he bought the building. But he did not plan to keep us. He started to evict all of the tenants right away."
Miller, who bought the building at 1506 to 1510 Jackson for $1.2 million at the beginning of 2012, offered to pay the $22,000 in relocation costs to the Lees as required by law, but according to 79-year-old Poon Heung Lee it would be impossible to find a place the family could afford on their Social Security income. Miller, meanwhile, has a history of emptying out rental properties and flipping them into high-value TIC units: another property he bought on Varennes Street in North Beach was recently renovated and sold as TICs starting at $439,000 apiece.
While shady, the practice is technically legal: the Ellis Act allows property owners to shake off rent control tenants as long as the building is no longer available for rent after the eviction. Selling the property as TIC units takes the building off the rental market. According to San Francisco Tenants Union director Ted Gullicksen, Ellis Act evictions and buyouts like the ones the Lees' neighbors took have tripled since the beginning of 2013. Numbers from the San Francisco Rent Board show a total of 116 Ellis Act evictions over the past year.
Among the Lees' supporters at yesterday's stoop rally were city supervisors David Campos, Eric Mar, David Chiu, John Avalos, Jane Kim and former Board President Aaron Peskin. Supervisor Kim was especially vocal yesterday, speaking out against the Lees' eviction on Twitter:
As Supervisor Kim told the Chronicle yesterday, the combination of the hot rental market and easy TIC conversions adds up to an incentive for property owners: "As the market gets hot again, there's a lot of money to be made, but we have to end the incentive," Kim explained. "Rent-controlled housing is our low- and middle-class housing in San Francisco, and we have to do what we can to preserve it."