Noe Valley Voice July-August 2000

Tenants Union Wants to Make 'Tenancies in Common' Uncommon

By Suzanne Herel

Tenant activists on a quest to preserve rental stock in the city have targeted Zephyr Real Estate as a company unfriendly to renters.

On June 3, several dozen representatives of the San Francisco Tenants Union staged a noon picket outside the firm's 24th Street office.

"Stop evictions for condo conversions," some of the signs read.

The action spotlighted a drive to put an initiative on the November ballot that would curtail condominium conversions. To do so, the tenants union needs to collect 15,000 signatures by July 10.

Fliers advertising the rally called Zephyr a leader in Ellis Act evictions and sneaky condo conversions that are squeezing out renters.

"We wanted to raise awareness of the fact that there are so many evictions being done for conversions and there are real estate companies promoting these evictions," said Ted Gullicksen, office manager of the SFTU.

"Zephyr is one of the leading players in real estate speculation," he said. "Real estate investors are buying up buildings, evicting tenants under the Ellis Act, and then using loopholes in the condo conversion law."

Zephyr manager Randall Kostick called Gullicksen's claims unfounded. "We don't do any more tenancies in common or condominium conversions than anyone else in town," he said.

Many of Zephyr's clients, he said, are first-time home buyers. "One of the things we're proud of is representing tenants who have become owners," he said. "Isn't that the American dream?"

Gullicksen wasn't swayed. "These days, first-time home buyers are people with money moving into San Francisco," he said. "Very few San Franciscans can even qualify for a mortgage."

According to affordability studies by the National Association of Realtors, many current homeowners wouldn't be able to land a mortgage if they were buying for the first time in the current market. Gullicksen said his group's initiative would help protect those who can't afford to buy by making it more difficult to take rental units off the market.

Currently, the city limits condo conversions to 200 per year, but that cap is due to expire at the end of 2000. The initiative would retain the cap.

There are also ways to get around the law. Owners can evict tenants through the Ellis Act (take their property off the rental market), or they can conduct a "move-in eviction," i.e., move in themselves.

A third way is for groups of people to buy a building together, each taking ownership of an individual apartment. This method, called tenancies in common -- or TICs -- is not restricted by the city. But it would be, if the union's initiative succeeds: TICs would be included in the condo conversion cap of 200.

This last provision is controversial, even among tenants.

"If we stop people from doing 'tenancies in common,' we will take away the only alternative the average person has left to become a homeowner in San Francisco," said Kostick. "Then only the rich will be able to buy homes here."

Gullicksen argues, however, that many TIC partnerships are formed by well-heeled investors and are simply a way to skirt the condominium conversion cap. "Every time a unit gets converted, it means people are being evicted," he said. "It's just bad social and housing policy to create ownership for people with money by evicting people without money."

The tenants union also objects to local realtors' practice of listing properties as "Vacant" or "Delivered Vacant," which only encourages evictions. "These condos are being sold empty because the tenants are being evicted," Gullicksen said.

Kostick is equally upset about the "downright false information" on the tenants union literature distributed at last month's protest. He also maintains that the union isn't distinguishing between the actions of Zephyr agents and their clients.

One person the recent picket did single out was Zephyr agent Bonnie Spindler. Spindler, the tenants union flier said, is on her second owner-move-in eviction and just made a half-million-dollar profit on a four-unit building that she bought and emptied of tenants.

Spindler tells a different story. She did evict a tenant so she could live in a home she owned. But that was eight years ago, and Spindler still lives there.

And she admits to using the Ellis Act to evict tenants of another building she owns on Scott Street. "The Ellis Act was forced on me," she said. According to Spindler, the city declared illegal two of her building's four units, saying she needed to replace their kitchens. When the tenants blocked her permit, she said, she evicted them.

But Spindler's main point is that "people who buy a building need to be able to move into the building they've bought. That's becoming impossible."

Meanwhile, the tenants union plans to continue its campaign of selective picket lines. Gullicksen said union members will visit other realtors around the city, as well as open houses -- some of which are expected to be in Noe Valley.