Tech Workers and the Eviction Crisis

A look at new technology projects combating Bay Area speculation, plus the role and responsibilities of tech workers within local communities.

by Erin McElroy & Kelsey Gilmore-Innis on February 24th, 2014

In April of 2014, Mary Elizabeth Phillips will be turning 98 years old. She will also be evicted via the Ellis Act from her home of 50 years on Dolores Street.

She is being evicted by the 55 Dolores Street LLC, a small LLC created by the San Francisco investment company, Urban Green, and designed specifically to evict her and her neighbors from their home. Mary, while aware that her previous landlord sold the building to Urban Greed’s LLC, cannot quite comprehend that she will soon be displaced. As Mary says, “This has been my home for over 40 years and I don’t want to leave… I am just too old.”

Protesters, with a megaphone, hold large fabric banner reading: Eviction Free San Francisco.

Photo by Harvey Castro

The Ellis Act is a state law, passed in 1986, to allow landlords to “go out of business” and retreat from the rental market. The Santa Monica landlord who prompted the drafting of the Ellis Act foreshadowed its use in San Francisco by speculators when he declared in court, “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.”

Rise of Ellis Act Evictions

The Ellis Act was not used much in San Francisco during its incipient years. Then came the Dot Com boom. The new money flooding the area due to tech’s success created a political economy in which it became lucrative for real estate speculators to take advantage of the state law.

Chart showing No-Fault Evictions from 1997 to 2013. After a peak around the first dot com boom, they are on the rise again.

The charts of No-Fault Evictions on the Ellis Act Eviction Map show that it wasn’t until 1997 that the Ellis Act was used in mass. You can also see that it is one of three kinds of no-fault evictions that landlords use to evict tenants, the other two being Owner-Move-In Evictions and Demolitions. Like Ellis Act evictions, OMIs and Demolitions undermine affordable and rent-controlled housing. However, they are not being used as much by large investment companies and speculators.

While no-fault evictions began to abate following the Dot Com bust, they have picked up at unprecedented rates over the last few years, coinciding with what many have begun to call the Tech Boom 2.0. In fact, the number of evictions in 2013 surpassed evictions in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble. Total no-fault evictions are up 17% compared to 2006.

More significantly, there has been a 115% increase in total evictions since last year. The rate of increase over the past year is especially troubling. Ellis Act use has increased by 175% in 2013 compared to the year before. The Rent Board does not collect information on how many bedrooms or how many people reside in a unit, but these eviction figures represent thousands of residents evicted in 2013. Our numbers also do not represent increasing displacement caused by the threat of eviction via buyouts and harassment.

After city legislation was passed in 1998 that made it harder for landlords to evict multiple units via owner-move-in, the overall increase in evictions has been driven by increasing use of the Ellis Act. Our data supports our analysis that institutional speculators and investment companies are driving the market. We have found a group of investors and speculators who we have named “The Dirty Dozen” who seem to be abusing the Ellis Act most prevalently. We are finding that they, along with a dedicated list of runner-ups, are not using the Ellis Act to “go out of business,” and are instead utilizing the Act as part of their business model. Why else would David McCloskey, CEO of Urban Green, be Ellis-Acting four different buildings within a year of acquiring them? Why are 70-80 percent of Ellis Act evictions taking place within the first year of ownership? Clearly, this state law is being taken advantage of by a number of investors, preying upon the political economy that the Tech Boom 2.0 has incited.

The Role of Tech Workers in Displacement and Evictions

These speculators’ role in dismantling the heart and soul of San Francisco can’t be understated and we must work to stop them. They are not the only participants in San Francisco’s homogenization, though. While the average per capita annual income in San Francisco is $46,000, the average per capita annual income of tech workers is closer to $100,000. It is largely tech workers who can afford the new housing being created by speculators who evict longtime tenants, and their employers who support the political climate that allows speculators to prosper.

Big tech exploits San Francisco’s cultural diversity and public infrastructure to lure workers here. Units around private tech shuttle stops command twenty percent more than their surrounding neighborhoods. Since the emergence of the Tech Boom 2.0, we have seen no-fault evictions up eighty-three percent across the city. Small, independent shops are going out of business as the new tech class fails to frequent them – after all, many of their needs, including full meals, transportation, and laundry, are met by the corporations for which they work.

San Francisco Isn’t a Perk

To long-time residents and merchants facing eviction, San Francisco is not a “perk.” It is their life, livelihood, family, chosen family and safety net. There are more seniors (like Mary Phillips) being dispossessed than those of any other age range. There are more working class and poor people being evicted than any other income bracket.

McElroy, the author of this piece, at a protest, holding a megaphone.

McElroy, the author. Photo by Harvey Castro

San Francisco has long been a haven for marginalized communities. It has offered health care services for queer and transgender folks, some of the top doctors in the country for fighting AIDS, and social services for indigenous, diasporic, and refugee communities. Today, we see it dispossessing the communities that it has historically sheltered, and instead privileging tech. The mayor visits tech companies every Tuesday. Why not tenants? People at risk of being displaced should be a part of the city’s conversations regarding how the tech industry should mitigate its impact on communities.

Why is the Mayor listening to angel investor Ron Conway over community groups? Who agreed to the terms in Twitter’s Community Benefit Agreement? Who was heard and who was ignored during the SFMTA Board meeting to instigate charging only $1 when private shuttle buses stop in our public bus zones?

About The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

While we see real estate speculation and investment as the primary source of evictions, it is clear that the real estate market is taking advantage of the class that the city and tech have created. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project seeks to deconstruct this trinity.

Screenshot of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project's website, and a stencil sometimes used by activists to mark the sidewalk outside eviction locations. The stencil shows a rolling suitcase labeled 'Tenants here forced out' with a tag reading 'Ellis Act.'

We are creating a number of open source databases, maps, and visualizations to make the eviction epidemic more comprehensible, and to open data so that it is more accessible for people to use in various ways. Our project is unique in that while we are creating tools to combat evictions and gentrification, we also utilize open source technologies, bridging the gap between what might seem like disparate contingencies. We have several mapping projects that we are currently working on:

The Dirty Dozen and Beyond

We are researching all of the investment companies responsible for Ellis Act evictions to produce visualizations and maps linking the people behind them to the people they are evicting.

Narratives of Displacement

We are compiling oral histories of people displaced, and soon will upload these to our interactive Narratives of Displacement map, a collaboration with the Urban Studies class Sustainable Cities at Stanford University.

Evictions Across California (In Progress)

We are gathering data about no-fault evictions in other California cities to help frame a state campaign for Ellis Act reform.

How Tech Workers Can Help

We implore tech workers to utilize the tools that we create to make conscious efforts to mitigate the impact that tech corporations are having on San Francisco’s multiplicitous communities, especially those structurally oppressed. That can mean making conscious decisions not to move into homes from which people have been evicted. That can also mean frequenting local businesses and public infrastructure instead of solely relying on company perks.

Furthermore, we appeal to tech workers to organize with us, whether through our mapping and data visualization work, or through the work of other housing organizations and movements throughout the city. There are numerous skills that tech workers can bring to our efforts, and many tech workers are already involved in activism and grassroots projects like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project – to join us, drop us a line here.

We ask that tech workers divest from major tech corporations, economically and politically, and instead work with smaller companies and open sources technologies. However, tech workers employed by large corporations can also organize from within their companies, putting pressure on higher-ups to mitigate the impact that their companies are having.

We ask that tech workers get to know their neighbors and the communities, and that they make concerted efforts to learn local history. If your neighbor is being evicted, support their struggle to remain in their home. Don’t ignore these issues just because you might be busy, or feel guilty, or disconnected.

Ignorance is maintained by those who chose to ignore. In order to curb the current epidemic of evictions and displacement, we need to build unlikely alliances across multiple differences. This is your opportunity to step up and join the movement.