This week’s passage of tough eviction protection legislation was not surprising; what was unexpected was Mayor Newsom’s embracing it and Supervisor Dufty arguing against the use of the Ellis Act to create homeownership. The reason Newsom and Dufty supported this legislation after having opposed weaker measures reflects the dramatic increase in public opposition to speculator evictions that has occurred in the past few months. Ellis evictions have become the talk of the town, and even the Mayor’s Press Secretary was implicated in the practice of buying units vacated by the eviction of vulnerable tenants. Newsom and Supervisor Aaron Peskin were key to the measure’s enactment, but this landmark victory is largely a tribute to grassroots tenant activism.

The past decade has seen two waves of real estate activities that have spawned a sharp counter-reaction even from landlord’s traditional political allies. The first in the late 1990’s led Mayor Willie Brown to support strong restrictions on owner move-in evictions of senior and disabled tenants; the second has now led Mayor Newsom to endorse the imposition of disincentives for Ellis Act evictions of these same groups.

In both cases, a small number of real estate speculators engaged in conduct that was “off the charts” by San Francisco standards. San Franciscans simply will not accept throwing elderly or disabled tenants on the street so that speculators can profit.

Evicting entire buildings of longterm tenants is a great strategy for building grassroots opposition. These tenants often have deep roots in their communities, and in the past year have created a “six degrees of separation” affect whereby thousands of San Franciscans seemed to personally know someone facing eviction under Ellis.

These newly-created tenant activists spoke out at Supervisor hearings, lobbied officials, wrote letters to the editor, and enhanced the climate that something very wrong was going on in San Francisco. That so many of those facing eviction were seniors or longtime residents made a huge difference in building public support for the tenants cause.

Of course, without Tenant Union leader Ted Gullicksen’s tireless efforts, these nascent grassroots protests would have lacked focus and a vehicle for change. Gullicksen worked with Supervisor Peskin to create an ordinance that would focus grassroots passions toward a solution, and then mobilized the base to achieve passage.

San Francisco’s real estate industry remains strong, but the pillars of this industry do not view the eviction of elderly tenants as good for business. Representatives of landlord groups have gone through the motions in opposing eviction protections as part of class solidarity, but many if not most San Francisco landlords want no part of the evictions for profit schemes addressed by the legislation passed Tuesday.

Mayor Newsom made a political mistake in vetoing two tenant protection measures earlier this year, and in the days before Tuesday’s Board meeting he decided he did not want to veto the latest Ellis-related legislation. To facilitate a deal he assigned Wade Crowfoot, his Board liason and former aide to Supervisor Peskin, to negotiate with his former boss and Tenants Union leader Ted Gullicksen.

The Mayor’s big sticking point was the date upon which eviction notices under the legislation would be covered. He wanted no retroactivity, while the original legislation said that eviction notices issued as far back as 1999 would prevent affected units from converting to condominiums.

A week before the vote, tenants had agreed to move the retroactive date to late 2004. But the Mayor’s office insisted on no retroactivity, which would have provided no hope for tenants currently fighting evictions and which was a deal killer for tenant groups.

With the chances for further compromise seemingly gone, a Newsom veto and November ballot initiative seemed inevitable. That’s when Supervisor Peskin used his negotiating skills to inject additional terms into the debate, particularly the notion that tenants would allow buildings where evictions of non-protected tenants had occurred to potentially convert to condos after ten years, rather than face a permanent ban.

Peskin, who made his living negotiating water rights for Native American tribes before becoming a Supervisor, understood that by giving the Mayor something in one part of the legislation the logjam over retroactivity dates could be overcome. He also threw the Mayor a provision that exempted units where evictions had occurred but were already owner-occupied.

In prior confrontations between the Board and Mayor over tenant legislation, the poor relationship between Newsom and Chris Daly made compromise difficult. Peskin does not have a great relationship with Newsom, but they have worked out deals in the past and Crowfoot’s involvement facilitated an agreement.

While Newsom’s support for gay marriage broadened his base in a way that can never be approached, his support for the tenant protection bill will help his re-election chances in 2007. Newsom backers put on the defensive by the Mayor’s repeated vetoes of tenant protection measures now have something positive to talk about.

Bevan Dufty helped his re-election chances by supporting the tenant measure, even though his vote was irrelevant (there were already six votes for passage). Dufty delayed committing to the compromise until it had been approved by the Mayor, but criticized using the Ellis Act as a route to homeownership.

Dufty’s vote occurred as a new website, DumpDufty.com, emerged this week to build support to defeat him. Even Dufty would have to be amused by the site’s creativity, which sells t-shirts, dog apparel, and mugs with a logo of a dump truck unleashing its load.

In spearheading this landmark legislation, Peskin fulfilled the expectations many had for him when he was elected to the Board as an “outsider” candidate in 2000. After taking office, Peskin discovered so many questionable city contracts and budget allocations that he began focusing more on auditing government and spent less time providing leadership on critical citywide issues.

Peskin has found new life as a legislative leader since Newsom took office. This week’s victory likely represents his most important citywide legislative achievement on the Board.

Peskin is accustomed to being regularly greeted by passers by as he walks the streets of North Beach. These greetings will now become hugs of appreciation, as tenants show their appreciation for a supervisor fighting to preserve the economically diverse character of his district.