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Have Ellis Act Evictions Reached a Crisis Point?

Scott Lucas | March 14, 2014 | Story

It sucks to be a renter right now.

If you're a San Francisco renter, don't get too comfortable. According to data from the city reported in the Examiner, evictions rose a total of 1,977 actions in the year between March 1, 2013 and February 28, 2014.

That's one of the highest levels since the city's first dot com boom. Our peak year for evictions was from 2000-2001 with 2,675. So the most recent numbers are at just shy of 74% of their peak. Since those numbers have been climbing since 2009, absent a major change, it'd be a safe bet to expect 2015's data to be higher still.

Ellis Act evictions—though they represented a small portion of the total at 11% of all evictions—also rose steeply to 216. That's up by large rates of change every year since bottoming out in 2011. The city is still not close to its peak in 1999 when it had over 500 cases, but Ellis Act evictions are nearing their 2004-2008 levels, when they averaged around 300 a year.

Nobody disputes that the city is facing a housing affordability crisis. But is it facing an evictions crisis too? Depends how you look at it.

As we argued a few months ago, before the latest round of data was released, most apartment evictions in the city are for unobjectionable reasons—not paying rent or being a nuisance. Concerns about the Ellis Act, which take a massive human toll for many of the evicted renters, tend to be used a less than perfect proxy for the housing market in general though. That's less defensible, but understandable.

After all, an Ellis Act eviction is a situation with what appear to be clear cut victims and villains, and one that strongly incentivize for politicians—both moderate and progressive—to take to the grandstands and bullhorns. They also feed into a wider sense of renter concern—advocates cite a figure of five negotiated buyouts for every one Ellis Act eviction. (Without systemic data collection, though, it's impossible to evaluate how many of those cases are resolved amicably and how many involve fraud or threats by landlords.)

So what's the takeway?

The city is facing a severe housing shortage that causes an increase in rents and land values, which in turn gives reasons for landlords to cash out via Ellis when the market is strong. Specific Ellis Act cases carry large amounts of pain, and probably could use some manner of policy amelioration. But solving Ellis doesn't help much, if at all, with the macro-level situation.

Largely, the new data leaves the basic contours unchanged. Like we said, it really sucks to be a renter right now.

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