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Why Isn’t L.A. Protecting Rent-Controlled Housing?

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The mass Ellis Act evictions and planned demolition of rent-controlled housing in Beverly Grove is a tragedy. Tenants and their supporters continue to protest, generating strong media coverage over the evictions being carried out by Matthew Jacobs, Chairman of the California Housing and Finance Agency. The agency’s mission is to “[support] the needs of renters and homebuyers by providing financing and programs that create safe, decent and affordable housing opportunities for low to moderate income Californians.”

Yes, Jacobs is a hypocrite. He has no business working for a state housing agency. And Ellis Act evictions are an outrageous circumvention of local rent-control laws.

But Jacobs would not be evicting these tenants under the Ellis Act if Los Angeles prohibited the demolition of rent-controlled housing. That is the real message behind the Beverly Grove evictions. Los Angeles is suffering from a wave of demolition-inspired Ellis Act evictions that local officials have the ability to stop — if they have the political will.

For Los Angeles to slow gentrification and displacement, it must protect its rent-controlled housing.

San Francisco’s Experience

San Francisco went through a battle over the demolition of rent-controlled housing in 2003. The owner of a 352-unit apartment complex sought to tear it down and replace it with 1,900 units. All tenants would be evicted in the process.

I wrote a city law preventing the demolition of sound rent controlled housing that passed the Board of Supervisors only to be vetoed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. We then gathered signatures to put the measure on the November 2004 ballot. It qualified, but was then removed from the ballot on technical grounds. We then planned on recirculating petitions for a special election, only to have the landlord agree to a deed restriction imposing rent controls on 352 units in the first new building constructed.

A precedent was established that continues in San Francisco to this day. When a landlord of another large development proposed a similar demolition of rent-controlled housing, the initial plan included on-site replacement of all rent controlled units.

Last December, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive order preventing the conversion or demolition of any rent-controlled housing units to other uses. The order was primarily designed to protect the merger of units within buildings, which reduces the rental housing supply.

Stopping Gentrification

As I argue in my new book on San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, gentrification and displacement in urban neighborhoods are not “inevitable.” Neighborhoods that have resisted this process have relied on key land use strategies. In Los Angeles, one of these strategies must be to stop the demolition of rent-controlled housing as is occurring in Beverly Grove and elsewhere.

A series of terrible court rulings on the Ellis Act once prevented cities from stopping post-Ellis Act demolitions. Fearing a wholesale destruction of rent-controlled housing, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, worked with former State Senator John Burton to overturn these court rulings. In 1999 we prevailed in Sacramento, winning passage of Government Code 7060.7(b) that states that the Ellis Act does not “Preempt local or municipal environmental or land use regulations, procedures, or controls that govern the demolition and redevelopment of residential property.”

So while local governments cannot stop Ellis Act evictions, they can eliminate the incentives for such displacement. If Los Angeles had followed San Francisco’s lead and protected its rent-controlled housing stock from demolition, the Beverly Grove evictions would not have occurred.

Thanks to great media work by Beverly Grove tenants, the Los Angeles Times and other media have covered Jacobs’ role in the evictions and the spreading use of the Ellis Act in Southern California.

(Randy Shaw is Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which has been fighting to stop displacement in the Tenderloin and throughout San Francisco for 35 years.)


Photo of Matthew Jacobs protest: Coalition for Economic Survival

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