Leno's Ellis Act reform bill clears first legislative hurdle

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Sen. Mark Leno

Sen. Mark Leno’s Senate Bill 1439 — which would protect rent-controlled housing in San Francisco by amending the Ellis Act, including making property owners wait at least five years after buying a property to evict tenants under the act — cleared its first legislative hurdle today.

The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee passed the measure on a 6-4 vote, and it heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee next. The bill has strong support in San Francisco, from progressive constituencies through Mayor Ed Lee to support by leaders in the business community and tech world.

Yet the measure faces a tough road in Sacramento, where the landlord lobby and other conservative interests oppose it. “A bill that could strip San Francisco landlords of their freedom to leave the rental housing business heads to a key Senate committee next month,” the California Apartment Association wrote last month in an alert to its members.

But as Tenants Together demonstrated in a recent study of how the Ellis Act has been used in San Francisco since its passage in 1985, a legislative reaction to a California Supreme Court case upholding rent control laws, the legislation has larger been a tool used by real estate speculators to clear rent-controlled buildings of tenants. The study found that 51 percent of Ellis Act evictions took place within a year of the property being purchased, 68 percent within the first five years, and 30 percent of Ellis Act evictions were from serial evictors, often by businesses specializing in flipping properties for profit.

“California’s Ellis Act was specifically designed to allow legitimate landlords a way out of the rental business, but in San Francisco this state law is being abused by speculators who never intend to be landlords,” Leno said today in a prepared statement. “As a result, longtime tenants, many of them seniors, disabled people, and low-income families, are being uprooted from their homes and communities. The five-year holding period in my bill would prevent these devastating evictions from forever changing the face of our diverse city.”