Landlord groups argue SF laws favor tenants 

The gang of tenant-friendly ideologues gathered outside Sean Whelan’s new house in Chinatown last week had an unlikely look for protesters: suits, ties and wing-tips — and all the trappings of power.

Many of The City’s most powerful politicians — including Mayor Ed Lee, a majority of the Board of Supervisors and San Francisco’s delegation to the state Legislature in Sacramento — were on hand to voice their support for new restrictions on the controversial Ellis Act, which Whelan’s real estate company is using to oust longtime residents from currently rent-controlled 15 Wetmore St.

And that show of force is troubling to The City’s property owners.

Even as San Francisco’s rents rise to the most expensive in the nation and real estate in The City becomes more valuable than ever, local landlords big and small say they are politically powerless.

Judging by the steady flow of tenant-supportive legislation streaming out of City Hall — proposals to legalize in-law units, restrict demolitions, tighten the Ellis Act and put a punitive tax on real estate speculation — they may have a point.

“The mayor of San Francisco is basically a tenants’ activist,” said Andrew Zacks, Whelan’s attorney and counsel for the Small Property Owners of San Francisco, which represents landlords with one to four units who generally live in the buildings they rent out. “No one is on the landlords’ side.”

Among San Francisco’s 430,000 registered voters, tenants will probably always outnumber landlords. About two-thirds of San Francisco residents are renters, according to census statistics.

Situations like the hoopla over the rarely used Ellis Act — of the 1,757 evictions over a yearlong period, only 116 were Ellis Act evictions, according to the Rent Board’s annual report — are “purely political,” said Janan New, president of the San Francisco Apartment Association.

Most current landowner complaints are long-held convictions, such as that rent control’s capping of increases at 1 percent per year is a tenant “subsidy” that comes out of landlords’ pockets. Some landlords argue that it is near-impossible or exorbitantly expensive to evict a problem tenant, no matter what havoc he or she may wreak.

And despite the record market and demand for housing, local property owners say they are compelled to leave as many as 10,000 or more housing units vacant. San Francisco has about 220,000 rental units, about 9,900 of which — or 4.5 percent — are vacant, according to a November estimate.

Add to that a new unsavory element dissuading property owners in The City: fear.

“People are scared … we don’t want to end up on someone’s list,” said Noni Richen, the Small Property Owners’ president. In the wake of an anti-Ellis Act protest in the Mission district that ended with graffiti vandalism, she wrote a letter to Lee and to District Attorney George Gascón asking that the vandals be prosecuted.

She received no reply, she told The San Francisco Examiner.

While many agree that tensions over housing costs and residents’ ability to remain in The City are at all-time highs, not everyone sees the situation as so one-sided.

The mayor is listening to landlords just as much as he is tenants, said Christine Falvey, Lee’s spokeswoman. The mayor’s seven-point plan on housing, which calls for the construction or rehabilitation of 30,000 new housing units over the next six years, will “create more property owners” in The City, she said.

But if tenants are seemingly more protected than ever, they don’t feel it, said Ted Gullicksen, president of the Tenants Union.

“Now that City Hall has recognized people are angry, they’re paying us lip service,” he said. “We have not seen anything much in the way of actual results.”

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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