Speculators use “Draft” Ellis Notices to Displace Tenants

by Andrew Szeto on April 15, 2014

Recent attention to Ellis Act abuse has given way to potential policy changes at both the local and state level, but many tenants still face possible displacement through unlawful threats of Ellis Act eviction. Ellis threats are becoming increasingly common as speculative landlords attempt to scare tenants into moving out or accepting buyouts.

In documents obtained by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, notices of intent to utilize the Ellis Act to evict tenants are being issued without merit. The notices read like official Ellis Act documents, specifying tenants of their 120-day notices and required relocation payments. They even include sample relocation checks made out to the addressed tenants. However, the documents specify that they are merely “drafts” of what they can expect if the lawyer follows through with the threat.

A sample letter says:

… enclosed please find a draft copy of the Ellis Act Notice and copies of checks representing the first halves of the minimum relocation payments owed when the notice is formally served on you. However, please be advised that this letter, and the attached draft copy of Ellis Act notice, does not constitute formal service of the Ellis Act notice on you.

Rather, this letter is merely intended to invite you to discuss a potential “win-win” alternative to an eviction action. Specifically, the owner would be willing to enter into a settlement agreement with you whereby you would voluntarily vacate your unit in exchange for a monetary payment that would exceed the minimum relocation payment you are owed under the law. The actual monetary amount and your move out date would have to be negotiated between us.

The usage of the letters, THC lawyer Steve Collier says, is to manipulate tenants into believing that they are or will be Ellis Act evicted, even if the landlord has no intent on ever using it. Collier says that these threats are unlawful because they violate the San Francisco rent ordinance by which landlords can’t “endeavor to recover possession” without just cause. The threats are primarily being used to solicit buyout agreements, in which case landlords would be able to remove rent controlled units and rent them at market rate.

Becca Gourevitch of the Tenants Union told BeyondChron that Ellis Act threats have been common method for getting tenants to leave their units. She also said that serial evictors have been using such threats to evict tenants well before they actually began using the Ellis Act.

These Ellis Act eviction threats are the insidious side of the many unreported buyout settlements occurring in the city. It is often the fear of displacement that forces many to take buyout offers, which vary and may often be less than tenants need in order to relocate.

Challenging the Ellis Act

When tenants begin to vacate apartments, it often leaves those still in them more vulnerable and easier to pick off.

The tenants at the 2882-2898½ 23rd St. apartments recently demonstrated the power of collective action in challenging evictions. The THC represented their case and after being served Ellis Act eviction notices, all the tenants decided to stay and did not move. All the tenants in nine of the occupied units out of ten refused to move out and will now be able to stay.

The tenants wanted to buy the building from the landlord, but the building was eventually sold to someone else. Moving out is extremely costly, and buyout offers may sometimes be the best option for tenants. But the decision of the tenants at 2882-2898½ 23rd St. to stay shows how important it is for tenants to stick together.

Supervisor David Campos’ legislation to require landlords to report buyouts to the rent board will certainly help address the displacement occurring through buyouts. Further legislation that weakens the ability of landlords to abuse the Ellis Act may also reduce the power of Ellis Act threats as well.

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