Mapping Ellis Act Evictions Throughout California

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In March 2017, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP), in partnership with Los Angeles’s Coalition for Economic Survival, released an interactive time-lapse digital map detailing the accumulation of Ellis Act evictions in Los Angeles from the beginning of 2001 to the end of 2016. Our map, based upon Rent Board data, shows 21,200 evictions exploding across the city, crowding some neighborhoods more rapidly than others, such as Sawtelle and Beverly Grove in the Westside of Los Angeles. Ellis Act evictions have been particularly on the rise since 2009, with 352 filed in 2016 alone. This has more than tripled since 2013 when only 102 were filed.

The Ellis Act is a California state law passed in 1985 that allows landlords of rent-controlled buildings to exit the rental market by evicting tenants for no fault of their own. While the Ellis Act was initially used by small “mom and pop” landlords — a scenario that the real estate industry inaccurately alleges is still true today — its use has dramatically changed in contemporary times. For instance, the Los Angeles Times analyzed 2013 Ellis Act evictions and found that minimally 51 percent of properties removed vis-à-vis the Ellis Act had been purchased within the year prior to eviction, disproving the real estate myth. In other words, Ellis Act evictions are overwhelmingly a real estate speculation tool used by investors rather than the last resort of longtime small landlords. Similarly, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, in partnership with the statewide tenant rights organization Tenants Together, analyzed San Francisco Ellis Act evictions filed between 2009 and 2013, finding that also 51 percent of Ellis Act evictions occurred within the first year of property ownership and that 78 percent transpired within the first five years. In 2013 in San Francisco, 60 percent occurred within the first year of ownership and 79 within the first five years. Thus, in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, Ellis Act evictions are clearly linked to real estate speculation.

While the real estate industry loves to paint pictures of longtime senior landlords that simply must utilize the Ellis Act to exit the market, one can sell a building with tenants in it to another property owner without evicting anyone.

Ellis Act Evictions Map

L.A. Ellis Act evictions within the past three years. | Erin McElroy

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The law was written with malicious intent from its origin. In the late 1970s, Santa Monica enacted legislation to help protect its rent-controlled tenants from evictions. Shortly afterward, 17-year-old Jerome Nash inherited a rent-controlled building filled with tenants from his mother. Deciding that the landlord business didn’t suit him, Nash decided to demolish the building. In Nash’s own words, as written in Nash v. City of Santa Monica (1984), “There is only one thing I want to do, and that is to evict the group of ingrates inhabiting my units, tear down the building and hold on to the land until I can sell it at a price which will not mean a ruinous loss on my investment.” However, he was denied a permit due to the new renter protection legislation. Losing in a local appeal, he turned to the state capital where he had a friend, San Diego’s Jim Ellis. It was Ellis who introduced the Ellis Act in 1985 so that the young landlord could evict his “ingrate” tenants, demolish the building and maintain profit. It was just on Monday, April 10, 2017, that Ellis passed away at the age of 88.

As such, not only did Nash incite what has become one of California’s least tenant-friendly laws, now used in mass, but further, his speculative capitalistic logics have transited into the law’s present usage. In Los Angeles, Ellis Act evictions rose during the 2005 housing bubble, then decreased during the 2007 recession, only to pick up again after, especially over the last three years. In partnership with the Pico Neighborhood Association, in 2016, we also mapped Ellis Act evictions in Santa Monica, and have found that they too have dramatically risen in recent years, in part due to Transit Oriented Development. There, they jumped from only 15 in 2013 to 82 in 2015. In other words, Nash’s 1984 statement and actions perfectly align with Ellis Act users today, even though it was used minimally during its first decade.

sf lee family protest ellis act

Activists protesting the eviction of the elderly Lee Family in S.F. through the Ellis Act in 2013. | Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons


In San Francisco, Ellis Act evictions were first used widely in the late 1990s, becoming a real estate technology of the Dot Com Boom. With the bubble burst, it petered out, only to become utilized again with the dawn of the second Tech Boom. This startup bubble, beginning roughly in in 2011, instigated new forms of gentrification. This context led a group of housing activists, myself included, to begin mapping the San Francisco Ellis Act evictions in 2013, and to consolidate the data visualization, data analysis and digital storytelling collective, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. As we observed, neighborhoods from the Mission to Chinatown to Bayview Hunters-Point had begun to undergo rapid forms of displacement, rental increases and cultural change. In part, this was due to the real estate industry’s decision to capitalize on the new tech wealth trickling up into the city from Silicon Valley, as well as new startups and technocapitalism emergent from with the city itself. Property values began escalating most when proximate to tech infrastructure, favoring geographies and demographies inverse to those being displaced. For instance, Jennifer Rosdail began marketing much of the Mission as “the Quad,” home to “Quadsters,” or young tech millennials. Disproportionately, those moving to the region to work in tech are young, white men. Yet, according to housing clinic data that we’ve analyzed with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, Black and Latinx tenants, female-headed households and households with children are much more prone to eviction than young, white male tenants. While of course tech itself is not displacing people, the real estate industry, by taking advantage of the industry and its racialized, classed and gendered components, are.

While the AEMP began by only mapping in San Francisco, we soon grew to map Alameda County gentrifying landscapes as well, engaging intersectional analytics and collaborative community-oriented knowledge production. In addition to mapping evictions, foreclosures, loss of Section 8 housing and demographic shifts, we also mapped relocation data, studying where, throughout the Bay Area and the world, people have ended up post-eviction from San Francisco. Prioritizing producing data with, rather than for, impacted communities, we have produced over 100 maps, over 100 oral histories of loss and resistance, numerous video works, murals, zines and community events. Over the last year, we’ve been working with groups in San Mateo County, Santa Monica and now Los Angeles as well. As we have come to advocate, a regional approach is increasingly necessary, particularly as forces such as the Ellis Act are statewide and as it would take a statewide effort to successfully repeal it in Sacramento. While we tried to reform it in 2014, we were confronted with millions of dollars in opposition from statewide and national real estate associations, and unfortunately lost.

Currently, there is a new statewide tenant effort to repeal another anti-renter law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a real estate industry-backed 1995 law that has made it impossible for rent-controlled cities to extend the dates in which rent control applies. For instance, rent control does not apply to units built after 1978 in Los Angeles, 1979 in San Francisco and 1983 in Oakland. In Los Angeles, rent control limits rent from increasing more that 3 percent a given year to its 631,000 rent controlled units. But nothing built after 1978 can gain rent control, so essentially without reform or repeal of Costa-Hawkins, it is a non-renewable resource. Overturning Costa-Hawkins would allow rents to remain affordable when new units are built, helping mitigate growing conditions of urban gentrification and unaffordability conditions only exacerbated through the current growth of Ellis Act evictions. Challenging both Costa-Hawkins and the Ellis Act in Sacramento are critical to anti-displacement strategies throughout the state. To overturn both, statewide coalitional and solidarity work is requisite, and luckily, we are well on our way towards such alliance building.

clarion alley anti eviction mural

Community members in the midst of painting the Narratives of Displacement mural in Clarion Alley. | Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

Top Image: Screenshot of AEMP's map of Airbnb units by price in Santa Cruz, CA. | Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

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