Deputy City Attorney Turns to Ellis Act to Evict Tenants

by Lorraine Sanders on August 10, 2004

Last March, Deputy City Attorney Niall Vignoles purchased a rent-controlled Oak St. apartment building. Just weeks ago, Vignoles served his tenants with eviction notices under the controversial Ellis Act, a piece of legislation that allows property owners to leave the rental market by evicting tenants and selling the building’s units to individual buyers in tenancies-in-common agreements (TICs). Additionally, the Department of Building Inspection has a notice of violation filed on July 30 for Vignoles’ building. Although the original complaint about the building’s back stairs was filed in Feb. 2004, no repairs have been made. Ironically, Vignoles works in the City Attorney department in charge of enforcing building codes.

Vignoles is not acting illegally, but he is capitalizing on a legislative loophole that the City Attorney, his employer, considers harmful to San Francisco.

“It is shocking that a deputy city attorney responsible for housing code enforcement would invoke the Ellis Act to evict all tenants of his building. While his office fights to uphold laws that limit displacement of tenants by TIC conversions, Mr. Vignoles is throwing the tenants out of his newly purchased four-unit building, presumably so he can convert the units to TICs. Something is wrong with this picture,” said Dean Preston, a Tenderloin Housing Clinic lawyer who consulted with tenants of Vignoles’ building.

The City Attorney has been fighting to uphold Supervisor Jake McGoldrick’s Tenancies-In-Common Legislation, originally passed in 2001 but currently being challenged in the courts by a coalition of landlord associations. The McGoldrick legislation limits the number of TIC units that can be created in The City each year to 200, effectively closing a loophole landlords have used to evict tenants in rent-controlled units which they then sell at market rate in TIC agreements. Obviously, landlords can make huge profits by invoking the Ellis Act and converting their rental units to TICs.

Opponents of Ellis Act evictions and TIC conversions say both are harmful and largely unethical actions that seriously erode the small pool of semi-affordable housing available in San Francisco and allow wealthy buyers to take over apartments that long-time city residents have inhabited for years. Such a trend has major implications for a city already fighting problems with housing, homelessness and gentrification.

If The City wins its case against the landlords, the McGoldrick-TIC legislation stands. A win for the city will make it much more difficult for landlords of rent-controlled buildings to oust their tenants under the Ellis Act and pursue more lucrative TIC arrangements.

Although he confirmed his ownership of the building, Vignoles declined to comment for this story.

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