San Francisco — with its tech boom and housing crunch — is infamous for Ellis Act evictions that force tenants out of a building and allow the landlord to “go out of business.”
In practice, that means that many tenants are evicted from homes in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Landlords realize that they might make more profit with condominiums or other use changes, including teardown and redevelopment.
The issue has attracted nationwide attention as San Francisco’s tenants attempt to fight back. Some 2,000 people are evicted annually in the city.
But San Francisco isn’t the only offender. In fact, across the U.S., there’s a looming eviction problem, creating yet another iteration of the housing crisis that Americans have struggled with since the Recession.
Historically, evictions were quite rare, notes Matthew Desmond, who wrote an entire book about the situation. They were, in fact, so unusual that sometimes people gathered around to watch. In other instances, they became flashpoints for protest. Groups like Eviction Free San Francisco carry on that particular tradition today.
However, a number of colliding factors make them much more common. And mass evictions aren’t just taking place in regions with hot real estate scenes like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles — another city with skyrocketing evictions, particularly in rent-controlled housing.
For one thing, people are spending a growing percentage of their income on rent, especially among low-income communities. General cost of living is on the rise too.
And wages are not keeping pace with inflation — one reason California and New York recently signed $15 minimum wage laws. Even with government assistance, tenants struggle, whether they’re having difficulty paying for rent-controlled housing, accessing housing with rent vouchers or waiting for months — or even years — on public housing lists. It’s also complicated and time-consuming to apply for assistance.
On the landlord side, growing real estate markets prove to be an irresistible temptation — especially in neighborhoods that are rapidly gentrifying. Particularly for large property consortiums and developers, there’s an incentive to leverage real estate value, and the best return on investment isn’t a handful of rent-controlled apartments. Upscale condos, or new buildings with many units can all be rented at higher price points.
That drives landlords across the country to seek opportunities for eviction, whether they take advantage of laws like the Ellis Act or crack down on people who fall behind on rent. Smaller landlords struggle with maintenance costs, property taxes and mortgages.
Rents interact closely with poverty. Some one third of Americans lack savings entirely. Many more are ill-prepared for unexpected financial events and live from paycheck to paycheck. When rent represents a huge proportion of their expenses, they may struggle to meet their other needs. Tenants can quickly find themselves falling behind.
What happens next can be a vicious cycle. Landlords evict tenants; they lose out on deposits — and therefore don’t have any money up front to get established in new housing; and when they seek new rentals, their negative history may count against them.
Consequently, tenants can find themselves trapped in a cycle where they bounce from rental to rental, unable to afford their rent. There are also substantial racial inequalities — people of color tend to have lower wages and overall net worth, putting them at greater risk of eviction.
Eviction doesn’t just have short term consequences. In the long term, it can be associated with depression and other mental health implications. Children, who may be yanked from schools and friends as their parents move, especially suffer. Families also lose belongings, including beloved items that may be important to children.
The social consequences of evictions are huge — and the government is in the best position to do something about the situation. More aggressive development and promotion of public housing subsidies, increased wages and subsidized education would all be productive steps to lift people out of systemic poverty.
While these measures won’t resolve all the problems associated with gentrification, they would make it much easier for displaced tenants to find new housing. And thoughtful policies could lower overall eviction rates by radically reducing the number of people thrown to the curb for an inability to pay rent.