Ellis Evictions Continue: How One Tenant Fought Back

by | March 20, 2023

Tenant Overcomes Multiple Eviction Attempts

Michelle Mattera knows as much about combating landlord deceit and abuse as any San Francisco tenant. She has fought three separate eviction attempts by different landlords in her 18 years at the edge of Pacific Heights and the Western Addition.

Michelle found her first eviction notice pinned at her door after her honeymoon in 2007. The landlord’s lawsuit claimed she had committed a nuisance by keeping a dog – a patently dishonest claim given the landlord’s prior consent about her pet. At times overwhelmed, she’s managed to withstand each lawsuit’s emotional, physical, and financial stress.

Dave Crow, then an attorney at the San Francisco Tenants Union, represented Michelle and successfully helped get the case thrown out. Michelle believes the case was retaliation for requesting repairs for the apartment, a beautiful 1907 Victorian that had fallen into disrepair. The Department of Building Inspection had issued over 75 citations on the property, but the owner refused to make needed repairs. Her eviction would mean the landlord could raise the rent to the market rate. “This is all about greed,” Michelle says.

After the lawsuit was defeated, the landlord held onto the property for many years before deciding to sell in 2015. At that point, Michelle experienced a “feeding frenzy” of realtors in her apartment who routinely violated the tenants’ privacy. She learned to assert her rights and demand that the realtors show identification before entering her home.

When the sale eventually went through, the new owner quickly attempted an owner move-in eviction, which Michelle also believed was fraudulent. The landlord withdrew their eviction case shortly after Tenderloin Housing Clinic began representing Michelle, opting to put the building back on the market again.

Faced with even more uncertainty, Michelle realized that “the vipers keep coming because they are so greedy.” The building was sold in 2018 to a group of real estate developers operating behind a shady LLC. They sought to buy out the tenants in the property. Michelle refused the offer, believing it to be wholly inadequate. If she were to accept the buyout, it would lock her out of affordable, rent-controlled housing in San Francisco forever.

The owners served her with an Ellis Act notice in late 2019, claiming they sought to exit the rental market. Michelle was represented by Steve Collier of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. After more than a year of litigation, the San Francisco Superior Court threw out the landlord’s case. The landlord appealed the ruling to the California Court of Appeal. Last August, the First Appellate District upheld the Superior Court ruling, affirming that the eviction notice was defective.

Despite the legal costs incurred by the landlord in their attempt to evict Michelle, she doesn’t believe they are finished, and it’s only a matter of time before they attempt another Ellis eviction. Legally nothing prevents the landlords from refiling as many times as necessary until they meet the procedural requirements under the Ellis Act. Michelle believes she has only been able to remain in her home because of the incompetence of her would-be evictors.

Michelle’s best hope for permanent housing security would be if the California legislature decided to finally take up the cause of reforming the Ellis Act. Meant initially to allow landlords to exit the rental market and keep their properties vacant, court rulings have expanded the law to enable conversions.

The consequences proved dire for tenants as real estate speculators have evicted tens of thousands, permanently reducing affordable housing stock. Reform attempts have sought to deter real estate speculation by requiring landlords to own a property for three years before evicting.

These attempts came close to passing the Assembly, but no legislator wants to sponsor the bill in the upcoming session. Until Sacramento takes fundamental tenant rights seriously, the cycle of speculation and displacement in California cities will continue (March 22 is the final date for an Ellis reform bill to be introduced).

Michelle’s experiences have prepared her for anything now. “I relish in pushing back against their money and power,” she says, but notes the consequences, “You don’t hear about the toll it takes. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in so long.”

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