New Strategy to Stop Ellis Evictions of Seniors

by on July 17, 2014

Following protests at their offices and other bad publicity surrounding its eviction of 98-year old Mary Phillips, Ellis speculator Urban Green is now recording a life estate for Phillips. This does not resolve Phillips’ need to live on the premises with her caretaker (who Urban Green is still evicting), but it destroys the common speculator argument that they have no choice but to displace senior tenants under the Ellis Act.

This represents a seismic shift in Ellis Act evictions.

Attorneys representing senior tenants in Ellis eviction cases have long requested life estates, but speculator attorneys have refused. Instead, these attorneys and their clients expressed regret over evicting frail, elderly tenants; they argued that the Ellis Act gave them no choice, as it required the vacation of all occupants.

The Mary Phillips case puts that claim in the dustbin of history. Because a life estate is an ownership interest and not a tenancy, it is just as consistent with the Ellis Act as allowing tenants in common to occupy the premises.

Mandatory Life Estates

From this point forward, anti-eviction activists should demand that all seniors facing Ellis evictions be granted the right to permanently remain in their home. Speculators insisting on displacing seniors no longer can take refuge in claims that they have no choice; to the contrary, their refusal to grant life estates to elderly tenants is entirely their choice.

To be clear, requiring Ellis evictors to prevent senior displacement will only rarely stop the eviction of tenants who are not seniors. And  efforts to stop their displacement  must continue. But keeping senior tenants in their longtime homes is vital, and activists must work to ensure that the life estate strategy becomes standard operating practice in Ellis cases.

The Media’s Role

The media can help ensure senior tenants get life estates by getting speculators to address the issue on the record. Considering the San Francisco Chronicle had no problem reprinting an Urban Green press release without checking the facts, the very least it can do in the future is to ask evictors why they aren’t granting a life estate.

The media’s framing of Ellis evictions is crucial because many speculators, including Tom McCloskey, whose Cornerstone Holdings owns Urban Green, promote a public image completely at odds with their behavior. The last thing they want is for their friends and business relationships to find out that they are profiting greatly by wrecking the lives of elderly and disabled tenants.

For example, McCloskey’s own website notes that he “volunteers with the Advisory Council of University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza college of Business, and the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, where he has lectured on Business Ethics.”

Here we have a wealthy speculator adding to his riches by throwing seniors out of their homes  spreading his version of “business ethics” to future generations. Not since Ivan Boesky proclaimed “Greed is Good” have we seen such a model of business ethics at Tom McCloskey.

Tom’s wife, Bonnie McCloskey, is a Partner of Cornerstone Holdings, LLC. According to the McCloskey website, “she has extensive experience with civic groups, having served as Director or Trustee for 16 organizations.” She is “a past Chairman for the Aspen Center for Integral Health, and a Founder/Co-President of the Roaring Fork Friends of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado and a Board member of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.”

I wonder if Ms. McCloskey discusses her evicting elderly women at Women’s Foundation Board meetings. I suspect not. But if the Chronicle and other media really want to cover the Ellis eviction story, the background of those doing the evictions cannot continue to be erased from these accounts.

The economic background of Ellis evictors became a central point for opponents of the Leno Ellis reform bill, SB 1439. It makes it harder for opponents to claim the bill targets “Mom and Pop” landlords if the McCloskey’s and other super-rich speculators are the public faces of Ellis evictions.

Ellis Eviction Trends

With Ellis reform failing this year, evictions will continue. But four factors may slow their pace:

First, thousands of new for sale units are coming on the San Francisco market, offering buyers better options than a tenancy in common in an Ellised-building.

Second, rents are rising faster than home prices. Speculators seeking to maximize profits are better served owning rentals than with removing them from the market.

Third, the likely passage of the anti-speculation tax on San Francisco’s November ballot will cut into the profits of the quick resales that are central to the Ellis speculator scheme. The tax amounts are not high enough to stop all such resales, but they will make some buildings less attractive to speculators.

Fourth, and most importantly, tenants remain madder than ever about speculator evictions. Tenant activism against Ellis evictions is growing, and makes a difference. Urban Green’s quick response to the tenant protests shows their impact.

If everyone upset by Ellis evictions channeled their anger into attending protests and even organizing their own, throwing longterm tenants out of their homes will soon no longer be seen as easy money.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses the power of tenant activism in San Francisco in The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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