Ellis Act evictions changing landscape of San Francisco housing

Home for Gum Gee Lee and her husband, Poon Heung Lee, has been a three-bedroom apartment at 1508-A Jackson St. near Chinatown since 1979. They have raised seven children there. Now the immigrants from China and their 48-year-old disabled daughter are the only tenants remaining in the eight-unit complex.

That could change in just a couple of days.

As “Wednesday, September 25, 2013 6:01 AM” fast approaches, the Lees cannot ignore the “Notice to Vacate” posted last week in a court order and delivered in the mail Friday.

Speaking in Cantonese, Gum Gee Lee, 73, said, “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.”

The Lee family’s case is among the most egregious examples in The City of a rising number of evictions using the Ellis Act, a state law adopted in 1985 that allows a landlord to evict tenants in order to get out of the residential rental market.

Matthew Miller bought 1506 to 1510 Jackson Street for $1.2 million in January 2012. Within four months, he had offered buyouts to the Asian longtime residents there.

Miller did the same in North Beach at 32-40 Varennes St., which was renovated into luxury tenancy-in-common units listed starting at $439,000 each.

The Lees’ attorney, Omar Calimbas of the Asian Law Caucus, has represented almost all the other tenants in the complex. He suspects that Miller, like other landlords, has used the state law to turn a profit.

“It’s the same business model — he bought the property with the purpose to flip it from rent control to luxury TICs, sell it and move on,” Calimbas said.

However, the California Superior Court determined that Miller has acted within his rights.

“The law with respect to the Ellis Act is quite clear and it requires, as my client has complied with, going out of the business of being a landlord in the building,” said Miller’s attorney, Jeffery Woo. “And it is irrelevant what subsequent use is.”

Ellis Act evictions and the alternative — buyouts — have tripled since the beginning of the year, with high numbers in Chinatown and North Beach, according to Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union.

“There’s really no defense for this type of eviction,” Calimbas said.

The driving factor pushing housing demand above supply is once again a red-hot tech industry, which was the case in the late 1990s as well.

“There is much more wealth to go around, so these old rental buildings are being targeted and turned into condos and TICs,” said Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, which has been providing housing counseling to the Lees. “This strategy, we and affordable-housing advocates call ‘gentrification.'”

Census data in recent decades has shown a decline in families and children in Chinatown and North Beach in favor of the single, white, under-30 demographic. The 2010 results showed a continuation of that trend.

“The cost of housing has gone up everywhere, not just in the core of Chinatown, so it’s imperative for leaders to work on, ‘How do we keep families, neighborhoods vibrant?'” said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. “For that, you need the old, the young, people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. That’s what makes The City vibrant and makes people want to live here in the first place.”

Tenant advocacy groups see a 10-year moratorium on The City’s condominium conversion lottery adopted by the Board of Supervisors in June as one way to help stave off conversions of rent-controlled properties into condo units. The ordinance does not, however, stop real estate speculators from using the Ellis Act.

“We have seen an extremely troubling pattern of Ellis Act evictions in recent years, and without changes in state law, we need to counteract with local San Francisco policies to address the affordability challenges,” Supervisor David Chiu, whose district includes Chinatown and North Beach, said of the Lees’ case and others.

Chiu, whose political career began at the Chinatown Community Development Center, said he’s working with the organization to introduce legislation that would give Ellis Act-evicted tenants priority in other housing options.

But with waitlists growing for affordable-housing facilities like the under-construction Broadway Sansome Apartments, more residents are moving to the East Bay, Daly City and elsewhere.

Come Wednesday and their scheduled eviction, the 79-year-old Poon Heung Lee, speaking in Cantonese, said he doesn’t know what his family will do.

“If the police come and they take us to the sheriff’s office, I guess that is what will be,” he said. “We have not been able to find a place; what can we do?”