California renters and their allies celebrated last month’s victory
for the Lincoln Place Tenants in Los Angeles, as the Court of Appeals held that the Ellis Act – long abused by landlords as a “trump card” to evict tenants – cannot bypass basic land use regulations. Behind that victory was Steve Collier, a staff attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the tenants. Unassuming in demeanor and working hard outside the limelight, Steve has been a veteran of countless legal battles to preserve tenants’ rights in the face of a hostile judiciary – since he came to work at THC twenty years ago right after finishing law school.
“The Lincoln Place Tenants Association asked me do an amicus brief right after they lost at trial,” said Steve, “since our office does Ellis Act cases more than anyone else. It was really an outrageous result, and something had to be done to get it reversed.” The City of Venice had granted the landlord a permit to demolish and re-develop the massive, 398-unit property – conditional upon giving the tenants the right to return at the same rent. But the landlord then filed an Ellis eviction on the tenants anyway, citing an absolute right to “go out of the rental business.” And the trial court let him get away with it.
It’s a tactic that landlords have used repeatedly over the last two decades, and the courts have far too often acquiesced
. But here the Court of Appeals took notice of the fact that the state legislature explicitly amended the Ellis Act in 1999 to preserve local land use regulations – in order to reverse anti-tenant court rulings in the 1980’s and 1990’s. For Steve and the other attorneys at THC, the Court finally acknowledged what they had been arguing for years – and validated the work they had put in to get these legislative changes enacted.
“What I really like about working at THC,” said Steve, “is that it’s a progressive law office that litigates for tenants – but also one that works on policy changes in the law.” Steve came to work for the Clinic in 1987 as a staff attorney, right after the legislature passed the Ellis Act – a state law that allows landlords to evict a whole property solely on the basis of “going out of the rental business.” Over the years, the courts have expanded the effect of the Ellis Act – and Steve has been right at the forefront of fighting it.
A Long Island native, Steve came to California in 1979 to finish his bachelor’s degree at U.C. Berkeley. While in college, Steve got a job working as a community organizer for “United Neighbors in Action” – a health care reform group that advocated for elderly patients. Alta Bates Hospital was evicting its MediCal patients from nursing homes, he explained, because it was a less profitable business. Steve continued to work there until 1983, when the group ran out of money. “So I went to law school,” he said.
While getting his J.D. at Golden Gate University, Steve got active in a campus struggle when the school fired most of its minority faculty. He also worked throughout law school for local immigration attorney Marc Van Der Hout, and had planned on doing immigration law after graduating. But he couldn’t find such a job in the Bay Area, and resisted offers to move to Los Angeles. Then the job at THC. opened up to be a housing attorney. Executive Director Randy Shaw needed someone who would litigate full time, something that Steve had always enjoyed. “So I took it,” he said.
Steve’s work at the Clinic over the last twenty years has included affirmative tenant suits for wrongful eviction, habitability cases, and – of course – defending Ellis Act evictions. In 1991, Hastings Law School bought some apartment buildings in the Tenderloin – and claimed that as a state institution they were exempt from local zoning laws and rent control. Steve represented the tenants, and the case was later dismissed.
Among public interest law offices, THC is unique in that most of the revenue from lawsuits and settlements goes right back into the organization. In 1989, Steve represented a group of Nob Hill tenants who were being wrongfully evicted for capital improvements. With the settlement money from that case, the Clinic started the Modified Payments Program – where SRO tenants pay their rent to the agency whenever they get their monthly S.S.I. check. It is one of the Clinic’s primary activities today.
But with the Ellis Act, judges began to take what had been a seemingly benign state law and expanded its scope to trump most tenants’ rights in California. In 1990, the Abigail Hotel decided to Ellis the building to convert it into tourist use. Despite the City’s Hotel Conversion Ordinance which zones hotels to preserve the residential housing stock, the court ruled that the landlord had the right to “go out of the residential tenant business.”
In 1998, Steve ran for Superior Court Judge. “We had a series of bad cases in the ‘90’s,” he said, “where a whole string of judges would simply rule against the tenants.” Even in liberal San Francisco, most local judges had been appointed by Republican Governors – but could be challenged when their terms were up. Steve ran against a Pete Wilson appointee, because “if you don’t like the laws, change it.” Steve lost that race, but not without getting smeared in a Ken Garcia column.
In 2003, shortly after Steve and other attorneys helped defeat the anti-tenant Proposition R, State Assemblyman Mark Leno asked him what legislative priorities they should work on. “Even with the Burton Amendments that we had passed in 1999,” said Steve, “we were still seeing the Ellis Act used on SRO’s – which is the housing of last resort for the most vulnerable tenants. So we asked Mark to carry a bill that exempts SRO’s from the Ellis Act – because they are a very special form of housing that needs protection.”
Leno’s legislation, A.B. 1217, passed that year – after a conservative Republican who had grown up in SRO’s cast the 41st vote to get it out of the State Assembly. While Mark Leno sponsored A.B. 1217 to get it passed into law, Steve was the one who wrote it.
But while a 20-year legal career can bring results, a pro-tenant litigator will find himself on the losing end of many hostile court rulings by Republican-appointed judges. Which is why a decision like Lincoln Place is so noteworthy, as it validates the work that Steve and other attorneys like him have been doing for so long.
“I try to take a long term approach to keep me going,” said Steve. “When I started working here, SRO tenants in the neighborhood would get locked out [illegally] every Friday – because their landlord would know that our office was closed on weekends. We used to have to protest the City’s Bureau of Building Inspection just to have housing inspectors cite substandard hotels. We have seen things change for the better.”
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