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Evictions In East Boston: Housing Lessons From San Francisco

The Mission neighborhood of San Francisco (Shawn Hoke/flickr)
The Mission neighborhood of San Francisco (Shawn Hoke/flickr)
This article is more than 7 years old.

Part three of our special four-part series, "Evictions in East Boston."

We're exploring the push for a so-called "just cause" eviction ordinance that would make it harder to remove tenants through significant rent increases in Boston's heated housing market.

So far, we've heard from tenant advocates who believe there's an eviction crisis in Boston, and why they believe a "just cause" statute is necessary.

"We see folks coming into our weekly meetings on Wednesday talking about 50 percent rent increases, sometimes 100 percent rent increases, sometimes 200 percent rent increases," Lisa Owens-Pinto, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, told us. "If 30 percent is the average, the folks who are the most vulnerable have it even worse."

We've also heard from landlords and developers, who believe changing eviction laws could usher Boston to economic disaster.

"How would it cut in a free market world, where America is a free market economy?" asked Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. "Do we come to the world and say, 'Don't invest in our cities?' That would be insane."

"It will stop all housing, construction, period," Skip Schloming, executive director of Small Property Owners Association, told us. "The unions will be out of luck. The mayor's goal, 53,000 units by 2025, will never happen."

So, what can we learn from another major American city that's had a "just cause eviction" statute since 1979 — and is facing an even deeper housing crisis today?

San Francisco is the most expensive rental market in the United States. According to the rental website Zumper, median rent for a San Francisco 1-bed room tops $3,500 per month.

Carol Galante, a former assistant secretary for housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama Administration, says she's been in the Bay Area for 40 years and she's never seen the housing problem as acute or rapid. She's currently a professor of affordable housing and urban policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The escalation in these rents are happening so fast, it's been a challenge for people to get their head around solutions in the time frames," says Galante. "Post-recession, we have had new job growth of close to half a million new jobs, 480,000 new jobs in the region, and yet we have only permitted about 51,000 new homes or apartments."

That's nine times more jobs than homes in the Bay Area. And, just like Boston — where the problem is particularly acute in one neighborhood, East Boston — in San Francisco, the rental crisis also has a symbolic epicenter, in the Mission District.

Like East Boston, the Mission is one of the Bay Area's historically diverse communities. In 2000, Latinos were 50 percent of the Mission's residents. That number dropped to 39 percent in the 2010 census.

Renters and renter rights advocates demonstrated for better protections for renters, the creation of more affordable housing and to end the Ellis Act, during a march at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. in 2014. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Renters and renter rights advocates demonstrated for better protections for renters, the creation of more affordable housing and to end the Ellis Act, during a march at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. in 2014. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

"Whose life is actually worth more?" asks Mission District resident Carlos Padia. "The tech people working for Google? Or the family living down the street with another family in the same house because they can't afford it and they just came here?"

So, how did San Francisco get to this point of growth and displacement, even with a decades-old "just cause" eviction law?

"After World War II, like in a lot of cities, we were not growing, we were shrinking in population so we stopped building much housing at all," says Scott Weiner, San Francisco's city supervisor. He says the city started growing again in the 70s and 80s, and along with that growth came the first major rent spike.

"Rents were just going through the roof, and so the city adopted rent control in 1979."

But, San Francisco's rent control law didn't come without a fight, and it also came after a rash of mass evictions in the city, according to Maria Zamudio, an organizer with the San Francisco advocacy group, Just Cause.

"Some years back there had been a mass eviction of Filipino veterans and senior tenants from what used to be a small part of what is now Chinatown," says Weiner. "And that was one of the first times that tenants really came together and said, 'Evictions are unfair, especially when they are targeting really vulnerable folks.'"

So, that same 1979 rent control law also included the city's first "just cause" eviction protection.

"You can only be evicted for certain enumerated 'just' causes," says Weiner. "It protects tenants that live in multi-unit buildings that were built before the adoption of the ordinance in 1979."

The law applies only to homes built before 1979. However, it's had a huge effect. 75 percent of San Francisco's rental stock is still under rent control.

Yet, it didn't do much to stop San Francisco rents from rising to the $3,500 one-bedrooms they have today. There are a bunch of reasons — one is, the city allows rent controlled landlords to raise rents to market rates when a tenant moves out, and then rent control kicks in again.

Two: not much new housing has been built.

Three: something called the Ellis Act of 1985.

San Francisco's Mission District was one of Redfin's "real estate neighborhoods to watch" in 2013. (PRNewsFoto/Redfin Corporation)
San Francisco's Mission District was one of Redfin's "real estate neighborhoods to watch" in 2013. (PRNewsFoto/Redfin Corporation)

"The original intent of this law was to give landlords the opportunity to 'go out of business' of being a landlord without having to sell their property," says Zamudio. In the intense push-pull between tenants and property owners, the Ellis Act was passed just six years after San Francisco's rent control ordinance took effect. The act was originally supposed to help small landlords who wanted to get out of the business.

It was a good idea, but Weiner says it had some unintended consequences.

"It's not just being used by a small mom and pop landlord who lives in one unit, rents out the unit downstairs and just doesn't want to be a landlord anymore," says Weiner. "We're seeing speculators purchase a building, invoke the Ellis Act to clear out the tenants and then try to either sell the units or — under the Ellis Act — you can wait a certain number of years and rent it out again."

And you can rent it out again at much higher market rates. In other words, it's being used as a loophole for even more evictions. According to the city's Department of Planning, eviction notices jumped almost 70 percent in the past five years.

So, San Francisco is trying again. Just two months ago, the city passed the "Evictions Protections 2.0" bill. The law requires landlords to provide a "meaningful opportunity" to resolve disputes before evicting tenants, and if owners do issue no-fault evictions, they cannot increase rents on the units for five years.

But some Bay Area observers say, in the long run, the new law won't make much of a difference. And, as they've seen with the Ellis Act before it, "Eviction Protection 2.0" may end up hurting everyone — landlords and tenants — as much as it helps. Again, UC Berkeley housing professor, Carole Galante.

"I mean, I understand why communities have rent control and why it's an important protection at one level," says Galante. "But, the problem is it's almost like morphine where it's masking the pain of a terminal patient. It's not curing the disease."

There's really only one long-term solution, which everyone from city officials, tenant advocates and housing economists agreed upon. San Francisco has to build its way out of its rental crisis.

So, what lessons do San Francisco's just cause eviction laws hold for Boston? It depends on your point of view.

But Carol Galante said Boston should take note. There are so many similarities, she said, between the two cities: both great places to live, both intellectual capitols, both places where companies want to be.

But then, Galante got surprisingly personal. After 40 years in the Bay Area, she says she can feel the "calculus is beginning to change."

"My children are in their late 20s. I worry that they'll never be able to afford to move here, unless they become some big tech executive. You want top have a diverse community. If we don't get a hold of this, we're not going to have the Bay Area we love."


Carol Galante, professor of affordable housing and urban policy, University of California, Berkeley. She tweets @carolgalante4.

Scott Weiner, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He tweets @Scott_Wiener.

Maria Zamudio, San Francisco housing rights campaign organizer at Causa Justa/Just Cause.

Alison Bruzek, Radio Boston producer. She tweets @voteforali.

Jamie Bologna, Radio Boston producer. He tweets @jamiebologna.

More In This Series

Evictions In East Boston: The Push For A ‘Just Cause’ Ordinance

  • "They threw us on the streets without compassion. They knew we were human beings, but nothing mattered to them. That's unjust. They put us in this situation. We didn't ask to leave our homes, especially in the way they threw us out."

Evictions In East Boston: Landlords On What A ‘Just Cause’ Ordinance Would Mean

  • "Landlords say the proposal to regulate evictions for 'just-cause' creates 'de-facto rent control,' and that it would have disastrous effects including, 'housing deterioration, no new housing construction, death of small property ownership, destroying neighborhoods.'"

Evictions In East Boston: How Can Boston’s Housing Be More Affordable?

  • "We turn the conversation to our listeners – Are we in the midst of an eviction crisis? What do you think of a “just cause” eviction proposal? What is the role of government as the region undergoes rapid transformation? How do we promote growth and prevent displacement simultaneously?"


Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Documenting The Dispossession Of SF Bay Area Residents

  • "Today in San Francisco, cranes litter the horizon as the city gains international attention for skyrocketing rents and exponentially growing income inequality."

San Francisco Examiner: Mayor Ed Lee Does Not Veto Eviction Protections 2.0 But Leaves It Unsigned

  • "After days of speculation and a showdown between tenant advocates and small property owners, Mayor Ed Lee decided Friday not to veto the law boosting tenant protections, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors last week."

KQED: Priced Out: The Bay Area's High Cost Of Living

  • "It seems that almost everyone in the Bay Area has a housing horror story to tell. Anecdotes abound of renters spending months looking for a new place, and the pound of flesh extracted when they do find one. Equally scary are the stories from aspiring, seemingly qualified homeowners who are turned away by banks."

City And County Of San Francisco: Topic No. 205: Evictions Pursuant To The Ellis Act

  • "The Ellis Act is found in California Government Code Section 7060, et seq. It was enacted by the California legislature in 1986 to require municipalities to allow property owners to go out of the residential rental housing business."

This segment aired on December 16, 2015.


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