Will Dufty Protect North Beach Seniors from Eviction?

by Paul Hogarth on February 25, 2010

David Chiu’s legislation on garage additions in North Beach was supposed to pass the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. But because Bevan Dufty had concerns, the item was continued for two weeks. The ordinance would curb the wave of Ellis Act evictions that have devastated North Beach and Chinatown seniors, but the Castro Supervisor worries it could stop garage builders who are not evicting people. He asked Chiu to meet with John Pollard, who owns the SF Garage Company – among other opponents. But beyond running a business that builds garages, Pollard is a landlord who owns a 3-unit rental property on Union Street – and is trying to empty the building. Directly on point with the legislation, he got a permit to convert the basement into a garage – which currently houses a Chinese family, who was unaware that a permit had even been filed. There is no record at the Rent Board of an Ellis eviction on the property, because the tenants are being offered money to leave. In other words, without Chiu’s ordinance this eviction would have completely slipped under the radar. Given that Mayor Newsom has vetoed most tenant protections, Dufty’s vote could prove decisive when it comes back to the Board in two weeks.

“Chiu’s legislation is the most important thing the Board of Supervisors can do to stop Ellis evictions in San Francisco,” said Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

The Ellis Act is a state law that allows real estate speculators to evict entire buildings of tenants – trumping local protections – because they’re “going out of business.” As thousands of San Francisco tenants have lost their homes (including scores of North Beach seniors), Republican judges have broadly interpreted the Ellis Act to invalidate local efforts to mitigate it – such as Jake McGoldrick’s 2001 measure on T.I.C. conversions. In light of that reality, Chiu’s measure stops such Ellis evictions before they even start.

The proposed measure amends the Planning Code for parts of David Chiu’s district in North Beach. Under current law, property owners who want to add private garages in their building can do so through “discretionary review” – which means the Planning Department staff rubberstamps it, unless someone (who must obviously know about it first) files an appeal. Chiu’s ordinance would shift the burden to the owner, who must file a “conditional use” permit. It would then go the Planning Commission, who would have to weigh competing concerns – such as if tenants were evicted to build the garage.

Chiu proposed this almost a year ago, and the Planning Commission voted 6-1 in favor of the legislation. The Board’s Land Use Committee took it up at two meetings, and voted unanimously to send it to the Full Board. But at the Board meeting, Supervisor Bevan Dufty said he was undecided – that he would vote “yes” on the first reading, but would reserve the right to switch his vote later. Dufty explained that he felt the legislation had been rushed – and urged Chiu to meet with various stakeholders who were opposed.

According to Chiu’s office, Dufty asked them to meet with four people: (a) Janan New of the SF Apartment Association, (b) a liaison from Small Property Owners Association, (c) Mike Sullivan of Plan C and (d) John Pollard of SF Garage Co. The first two are pro-landlord groups, and Plan C was formed to oppose the City’s pro-tenant efforts to block condo conversions. In other words, it’s not a surprise that these groups are opposed.

But Dufty said he supports the intent of the legislation (curbing Ellis evictions), but had reservations about how it could affect owners with “clean hands.” Which is why John Pollard – who runs the business SF Garage that builds garages inside existing structures – sounds like a different kind of opponent. But it turns out he also owns rental property in North Beach, with the intention of converting the units into condos – and has applied to convert one of the apartments into a garage. In fact, Pollard’s case is exactly why Chiu’s legislation is so critical at curbing evictions.

In 2009, Pollard applied for a building permit for his property at 527-531 Union Street – right by Jasper Place. According to the Department of Building Inspection’s website, it was to “convert existing store room to new garage area.” Because current law only requires discretionary review for such an application, the City staff approved it on April 24th.

But the “store room” in question is occupied by a Chinese immigrant family, who could now stand to lose their home. Pollard purchased the property in 2007, and according to the tenants he offered them a “buy-out” – which they refused. It wasn’t until yesterday, when community organizers tracked them down that they even knew the permit existed. If Chiu’s legislation were in effect, the permit would have required a conditional use – warranting more scrutiny, and requiring a formal okay from the Planning Commission.

“We need to have these garage permits go through the conditional use process,” said lawyer Malcolm Yeung at Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) “so that bad actors can be caught in the process. The current discretionary review process is not just, because – like in this case – the vast majority would just slip through the cracks.”

There is also no record of an Ellis eviction for 527-531 Union Street at the Rent Board, which would have also caught the City’s attention. If any seniors or disabled tenants were evicted, the TIC’s would not be eligible for condominium conversion – affecting the market value. But other tenants in the building were offered compensation to move out, suggesting that Pollard opted to do “buy-outs” rather than file a formal eviction.

It’s quite obvious what has happened here. Pollard hopes to vacate the building, convert it to tenancies-in-common (T.I.C.’s) and build a garage for the new homeowners – which is currently a simple process that can even escape the attention of the tenants. And if he buys out the tenants to avoid a formal Ellis eviction, the units can eventually go condo.

According to Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union, this is not an isolated example. Since the Board of Supervisors (including Dufty) voted to pass legislation in 2006 to prevent condo conversions, we have seen an increasing number of “buy-outs” by speculators to avoid the record of an Ellis eviction. If tenants “agree” to move out, the units can be converted into condominiums – even if a senior or disabled tenant lost their homes.

How much tenants get paid, said Gullicksen, “depends on the savviness of the tenant.” Speculators may offer more than what the law requires in relocation for Ellis evictions, leading the tenants to believe that it’s a good deal (especially because it’s hard to fight an Ellis.) But once they move to a market-rate apartment, the relocation money runs out fast – while the speculators can now sell the building at a much higher value than otherwise.

I seriously doubt that Bevan Dufty knew Pollard is taking advantage of current law to quietly displace these tenants (although Pollard and his sister, who manages SF Garage, did each contribute $100 to his mayoral campaign.) I called Dufty yesterday afternoon and left a message about Chiu’s measure, but did not get a call before the end of the day. But he can vote for Chiu’s legislation, as the Union Street case clearly shows the need.

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