Peak Eviction Came to San Francisco Back in the 1990s

The tech boom has seen a rise in renter evictions, but the practice was perfected during the dot com madness of the late '90s.

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San Francisco eviction notices under the Ellis Act from Jan. 1997 to March 2014, per San Francisco Rent Board reports. (Brian Whitty)

Late last week, the California Senate passed S.B. 1439, a law introduced by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), with input from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, after a flurry of last-minute compromises following the bill's near failureIf it's signed into law, it will require landlords in San Francisco to own a building for five years before they may evict tenants under the Ellis Act. 

Enacted in 1986, the Ellis Act was designed to protect property owners who decided to leave the rental market. But in the intervening years it's been abused by some property owners and speculators who seek to force renters out of rent-stabilized dwellings in order to convert them into condos or Airbnb units

For all the attention that evictions under the Ellis Act have garnered in recent years, another legal instrument has caused even more harm. Owner move-in (OMI) evictions accounted for a huge number of eviction notices served in San Francisco in the decade leading up to "peak eviction" in S.F. in 1998.

Eviction notices, FY 1987–2013. Courtesy the San Francisco Rent Board.
Owner move-in eviction notices, FY 1987–2013.

Data compiled by the San Francisco Rent Board since 1987 show how eviction notices of all types peaked in 1998. Leading the way were OMI evictions, a just-cause eviction in which a property owner (or the relative of a property owner) moves into a unit previously occupied by a tenant. Over the course of a decade, the share of OMI evictions among all evictions grew from roughly one third to one half. The law was being abused to effect evictions of entire multifamily buildings—until 1998, when then-Supervisor Sue Bierman led a reform effort to restrict the use of evictions to clear tenants out of buildings.

The regulations worked. OMI evictions fell from 1,410 in FY 1998 to 937 by FY 2000 and plummeted with the end of the tech boom. In 2010, just 127 OMI eviction notices were filed, the lowest number since the Rent Board began recording notices in 1987. (In case you were wondering, evictions in the Mission have led other ZIP Codes for almost every year for which data are available.) 

But the regulations didn't get rid of harmful evictions. As one type of eviction notice declined, another sprang up in its place: Ellis Act notices. While there were 12 eviction notices citing the Ellis Act in FY 1998 (at the height of the OMI eviction craze), there were 440 Ellis Act evictions in FY 2000 (when OMI-eviction regulations went into effect). 

Ellis Act filings/eviction notices, FY 1987–2013. 

Now, sometimes property owners fail when the market crashes. The Ellis Act was designed to protect property owners looking to "go out of business" and leave the rental market. So you would expect to see some rise in Ellis Act evictions as the '90s tech bubble burst. But since 2000, the year that restrictions on OMI evictions went into effect, Ellis Act eviction have made up a consistent percentage of eviction notices overall. And many of these evictions are the kind that have led evicted families to protest Google landlords.

The numbers do show a jump in Ellis Act evictions between FY 2012 and FY 2013. But overall, there weren't nearly as many eviction notices in FY 2013 as in any year during the dot com boom of the '90s. And the record year for Ellis Act evictions remains FY 2000.

Which is not to say there aren't as many renters being displaced by this tech boom as the last one. Sometimes an eviction warning or threat is enough to spur a tenant to vacate. A property owner who successfully bothers a renter out of a rental is off the hook for most regulations designed to protect tenants. Mac McClelland, for example, described an episode in which her landlord filed a "dummy lawsuit" against her in order to intimidate her into voluntarily vacating.

There's no way to know how the current tech boom stacks up against the last one in terms of forcing out renters for speculation purposes. But the numbers show that the last tech boom was hard on renters. Regulators curbed the tool that was used most against them, but that didn't take care of the problem completely.

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.