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Economy, Business, Labor

The Aftermath of an Ellis Act Eviction

Daniel Schwen
San Francisco's North Beach where Marla Knight has lived for 48 years.


Marla Knight is packing up her home of 48 years. She’s been evicted from her North Beach apartment because the owners are converting it to tenancies-in-common. Now she’s sorting through a lifetime of belongings. She can’t take everything with her, so she’s choosing what to part with and what to keep.  

She and all the other tenants in the building are supposed to be out by February 4th. Most of them haven’t found replacement housing.  But Marla has. To find it, she had to think outside the San Francisco box.  

“My process is I’ve gone north,” she says. “Not to Marin. It’s too expensive. I would have liked Larkspur, but that’s too expensive for me. So, I chose to go to Petaluma. It’s got good art programs, very community minded, very progressive city. I felt I could make a new start there. Petaluma has senior housing for people who are not extremely low income. And I squeaked by.”

The apartment in Petaluma is nearly an hour north of San Francisco. It’s half the size and costs over $100 more a month than her current place. But Marla sees a lot to like.  

“There was a good feel about the place,” she says. “It doesn’t have the charm of this place. But it had a skylight, a smallish living room, a nice kitchen on the end. Everybody’s got a little deck so it’s really nice. I want to be part of a community, and I feel I can be that in Petaluma in that kind of housing.”

It’s a great find for Marla, except for one issue:she doesn’t actually have a unit there.

“That’s the catch,” she says. “I feel lucky to get on the waiting list. This place said it would be a year and a half.”

She completed her application in June. But there are no promises.

“So I don’t know when,” she says. “It kind of depends on who moves or, I guess, who dies, or who has to go into assisted living.”

Renting an apartment in the Bay Area means spending a lot of money, or a lot of time, or both. The market is competitive, and according to real estate search engine Trovit, one bedrooms today rent for nearly $2900.

That’s way out of Marla’s reach, but she doesn’t have a lot of options. The city’s affordable housing waitlists stretch for years. Evicted tenants often rent something beyond their means while they wait for a place they can afford.

Marla says, “It’s very iffy. So I’m going to have to do some kind of interim housing, which I checked on. Things are rising as we speak, so I know I’m going to have to pay big bucks. There’s just a lot of stuff going on here. Trying to make these decisions of do this or do that.”

To help ease the pain, the Ellis Act requires landlords to give senior and disabled tenants one year’s notice and about $8,500 for relocation. But that’s not much to Marla.

“It’s meaningless,” she says. “I think that a year on paper looks like a good time, but given the market, it’s not. There’s no place to move. The money is nothing. It means absolutely nothing with the way rents are. We all figured that out from the beginning.”

According to Marla, renters live in fear of the Ellis Act.

“Everybody’s scared,” she says. “Most of us still are renters in this city. Everybody, all my friends are. Every time my friends say they get an official-looking letter, they’re just shaking because most all of us are renters.”

Now that Marla’s gotten her official eviction letter she faces an uncertain future.  

“Its going to be a whole different life,” she says. “I would like to be able to stay here and control my own destiny. I have been a public servant, I was a teacher. I didn’t go into it for the money.”

Marla is upset that people like her are being forced to leave.

“I feel quite frankly, that not only do I have deep long roots in San Francisco because of my family, being a teacher at city college, but I’ve been active in the community,” she says. “I got stop signs put in at the corner. A friend and I got a fence put up at Children’s Playground. I worked on community affairs. I support North Beach Citizens. I feel I have contributed and am still contributing to San Francisco, and its wrong that I’m forced to move. It’s really wrong.”  

Marla has consulted with the attorneys at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, but her eviction is legal under the Ellis Act. And two months after Marla was evicted, her neighbors in an apartment up the street were also served with Ellis Act evictions.