3 Democrats May Block Ellis Act Reform

by on April 13, 2021

Brian Maienschein, Sharon Quirk-Silva, Jesse Gabriel

Breaking News:  Key Democrats Push to Kill Bill

The security of millions of California tenants could be decided on Thursday, April 15 as the Assembly Housing Committee votes on AB 854. AB 854 prevents speculator evictions under the Ellis Act, and is the strongest tenant and rental housing protection bill in the legislature this session.

Unfortunately, three committee Democrats—Jesse Gabriel (Los Angeles), Sharon Quirk-Silva (Orange County) and Brian Maienschein (San Diego)—have yet to announce support. The first two have offered criticism without suggested revisions, despite opportunities for compromise. With two of these three votes needed on Thursday, supporters of Ellis Act reform must urge these legislators to help rather than worsen our housing crisis.

Quirk-Silva helped kill a similar anti-speculator bill in 2014 (See “Assembly Democrats Put Ellis Reform on Life Support” June 19, 2014). But she has since expressed concern about the housing crisis. Quirk-Silva was recently appointed Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Orange County Homelessness and Mental Health Services and claims ending homelessness is a top priority.

The best way to reduce homelessness is keeping people from losing their homes. We hope AB 854’s impact on homelessness prevention leads Quirk-Silva to back the bill, which stops Ellis Act speculators from displacing families and seniors into homelessness. We also hope Quirk-Silva’s membership in the California Latino Legislative Caucus encourages her to protect the many Latino families targeted for displacement by speculators.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote about a five unit building filled with Latino families who all faced speculator evictions under the Ellis Act; that same speculator has since issued Ellis eviction notices to another building full of Latino families. Multi-generational Latino families are disproportionately the victims of Ellis Act speculators.

Quirk-Silva has a chance to make a real difference in addressing California’s housing crisis; we hope she votes to move the bill forward to the floor.

Gabriel represents the San Fernando Valley. His home San Fernando Valley Democratic Club voted unanimously to support AB 854. We thought the strong support among his district Democrats for stopping speculator evictions would get him on board; but his vote remains uncertain.

Our campaign was unable to get a meeting with Maienschein’s staff, not a good sign. He does not represent a district with a heavy concentration of tenants.

AB 854 has won formal support from the cities of Berkeley, Culver City, Oakland, Santa Monica, San Francisco, and West Hollywood. Los Angeles is expected to endorse soon. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party’s endorsement is on the consent calendar tonight; this means that Jesse Gabriel would be going against both his local Democratic Party and the citywide Party if he opposed AB 854.

Three legislators could deprive the 2/3 Democratic Assembly majority of the right to vote on AB 854. This despite California suffering from the worst housing crisis since the 1930’s.While Senate Republicans use the filibuster to thwart democracy nationally, California’s Assembly Democratic super majority uses a committee structure to undermine democracy at the state level.

Why would elected Democrats protect speculators over  seniors, disabled persons and the many Latino families targeted by the Ellis Act? Here are the four chief reasons opponents give.

“Mom and Pop Landlords”

AB 854 doesn’t cover longtime “Mom and Pop” landlords. Yet lobbyists for realtors or apartment associations routinely cite the need to protect this unaffected group as grounds for opposition.

It’s a smart strategy. It enables legislators to say they are protecting “the little guys” rather than the corporate speculators that drive Ellis Act evictions. But aren’t Democratic Party elected officials supposed to be driven by facts? The facts are that longtime “Mom and Pop” landlords have not used the Ellis Act in the past and AB 854 will not barred them from using it in the future.

That “Mom and Pop” landlords aren’t using the Ellis Act despite the 2020 downturn in rents is telling. If tenants aren’t paying rent, leaving the rental business to ensure you get no rents as times improve is not seen as a viable solution.

Who swoops in to take advantage of “Mom and Pops” feeling they need to sell? Speculators eager to use the Ellis Act.

That makes passing AB 854 even more vital for protecting tenants and preventing homelessness.

Camel Under the Tent

Landlord groups are forever on the alert against tenant inroads on their power. And while actual landlords rarely use the Ellis Act—which removes buildings from the rental housing supply—lobbyists see allowing any legislation to pass that helps tenants as opening the door to bills that would affect their members.

I came across this in 2003 when working with Assemblymember Mark Leno to get San Francisco SROs exempted from the Ellis Act. Despite the vast majority of Democrats representing cities unaffected by the bill, it only passed by one vote.

But here’s what happened next.

Under the “camel under the tent” theory, this bill would have soon led to further changes to the Ellis Act. Instead, the passage of the Leno bill has not led to a single meaningful reform despite speculators’ flagrant misuse of the law.

“It Reduces Infill Housing”

Claims that stopping speculator evictions under the Ellis Act would reduce housing production are pure nonsense. AB 1482, along with virtually every local eviction protection law, allows evictions for demolitions. YIMBY Action and Abundant Housing of Los Angeles, among the groups most aggressively advocating for infill housing, have both endorsed AB 854.

Opponents want to act like protecting real estate speculators serves a higher policy goal. It does not.

“It Doesn’t Impact My City”

When a similar anti-speculator bill was defeated in 2014, opponents argued that “state government shouldn’t be asked to solve San Francisco’s housing problems.” Today, California’s housing crisis is statewide. And the 2019 passage of AB 1482—-which created statewide just cause eviction protections—-means that the Ellis Act now impacts tenants in non-rent controlled cities.

As I recently wrote, the Ellis Act gives speculators a tool to undermine all of the eviction protections in AB 1482. Every single one. Legal aid attorneys in non-rent controlled counties like Modera are already seeing speculators using the Ellis Act to circumvent statewide just cause eviction laws.

Given that AB 1482 has been almost entirely in effect during the pandemic, it’s understandable that San Diego, Orange and other counties facing rising rents pre-pandemic have not seen many Ellis cases. But given that it’s typically the only way for speculators to evict for no cause, it’s particularly important that the just cause eviction gains tenants in these and other non-rent controlled cities won in 1999 are not lost.

Defeating AB 854 does nothing to solve the state’s housing crisis. In contrast, passage prevents further homelessness from speculator evictions and maintains the state’s supply of unsubsidized affordable rental units.

The choice is clear. Gabriel, Maienschein, and Quirk-Silva should move California forward on housing justice rather than make its affordability crisis even worse.

 

 

 

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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