On December 16, Mayor Lee met with tech leaders and, according to the SF Chronicle, asked them to ” mobilize in support of the city’s effort to amend the Ellis Act, the state law that allows owners to evict tenants if they take the building off the rental market.” Tech support for Ellis Act reform could make a huge difference. The tech-backed Silicon Valley Manufacturers Group played a key role in building support for state and local affordable housing funding in the late 1990’s. Business support for tenants was also crucial in the first wave of San Francisco real estate speculation, the 1979-1986 period in which capital improvements and demolitions put thousands of tenants at risk.

Among the biggest eviction battles of that era involved a plan to demolish 70 housing units above a produce market in the heart of Chinatown called “Orangeland.” 176 tenants, 40 of whom were elderly, would be displaced. Gordon Chin and the Chinatown Community Development Center, along with a young Asian Law Caucus attorney named Ed Lee, led the fight to stop the evictions. Despite over 200 opponents turning out to the May 9, 1985 Planning Commission hearing, the project was approved 5-2. All hope seemed lost. And then the Chinese Chamber of Commerce entered the fray. Led by a woman little known outside Chinatown, the Chamber used all of its political chits to save the tenants. Incredibly, on August 12, 1985, 8 supervisors voted to reject the project. The woman who stopped the eviction of these 176 tenants was Rose Pak.

Rose Pak’s role in stopping the biggest mass eviction in Chinatown history (the I-Hotel being in then-Manilatown) is largely forgotten or never known by today’s San Franciscans. Many white progressives routinely criticize her as a “power broker,” ignorant of her long track record of using her power to help tenants and preserve Chinatown.

All of us believed at the time that the Orangeland demolition could be the first of many demolitions of rent-controlled housing in Chinatown. A loss in that battle would have been devastating. Pak’s intervention not only saved 176 tenants, but sent the message that key Chinatown business interests were aligned with CCDC’s goal of preventing displacement in Chinatown.

Business Support for Ellis Reform

The key ingredients for winning Ellis Act reform in 2014 is the active support of the mayor along with support from private developers, tech, and other business interests. Tenant activists and groups cannot do it alone.

Governors and legislators are always concerned about the business and economic impacts of regulating real estate investment. That tenant activists see no negative effects becomes irrelevant as real estate interests invent all kinds of scenarios in which Ellis reform costs jobs and weakens the economy.
When I was working with then Assemblymember now Senator Mark Leno to pass AB 1217 in 2003 to exempt SRO’s from the Ellis Act, I heard these same economic arguments from legislators. I got the Residential Builders Association of San Francisco to write letters to legislators insisting the bill would not impede development or the local economy. Considering the bill only passed by a single vote, these letters and the business support it showed might have made a difference.

As Rose Pak showed nearly thirty years ago, business support of tenants can prove decisive. Gordon Chin recalls that “the Board vote to reject Orangeland shocked most observers of San Francisco politics. Everyone was surprised, except Rose, who had told me weeks earlier that she would get the votes to stop the project.”

After their homes were saved, many tenants cried with relief. Let’s hope our tech and development sector can help bring a similar result for tenants in Sacramento in 2014.