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As Rent Soars, Longtime San Francisco Tenants Fight To Stay

San Francisco has long been a desirable place to live — and that's even more true today as the city is basking in the glow of another tech boom. But the influx of new money and new residents is putting a strain on the city's housing market.

The city has the highest median rent in the nation, and evictions of longtime residents are skyrocketing.

Ground zero for San Francisco's eviction crisis is the Inner Mission District. Until recently, this edgy neighborhood was home to a mix of working-class Latinos, artists and activists.

Tom Rapp, an airport building maintenance worker, rents a modest second-story flat that he has called home for 15 years. He says a lot of his neighbors have been evicted over the past couple of years. Then bad news came knocking on his door, too.

"We received an eviction notice at the end of August," he says.

"But we've gotten like three different ones, right?" adds his roommate, Patricia Kerman.

Kerman, a senior on a fixed income, has lived in this flat for 27 years.

The two are fighting to stay in their rent-controlled apartment as their landlord tries to evict them under what's known as the Ellis Act. It's a state law that allows an eviction if the landlord wants to pull the building out of the rental market, usually with a plan to sell the units.

"They found this loophole where they're now able to get people out of their rent-controlled apartments, and it's just becoming an epidemic," Rapp says.

Rapp's landlord was not available for comment.

A recent city report finds that Ellis Act evictions have increased 170 percent over the past three years. Low- and middle-income tenants are unlikely to find another affordable apartment in San Francisco, where the median monthly rent has risen to about $3,400.

Fighting Back

At the steps of San Francisco City Hall, a small group of tenants and community organizers recently demanded that the city do something to prevent more evictions.

Inside City Hall, at a packed hearing of the Board of Supervisors, landlord Andrew Long blamed the evictions on the city's rent-control policies.

"This has caused rents for long-term tenants to be quite low, which is great for them, but it doesn't keep a building up," Long said.

Long said rent control drives small property landlords into the hands of big-money speculators who profit from converting rentals to condos.

But the hearing was dominated by scores of long-time residents who talked about their fears of getting pushed out of San Francisco.

Beverly Upton, director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, is facing eviction from a building where she has lived for 25 years.

"Once the advocates and the organizers and the artists are gone, who will be left to care about our city?" she said.

That's a big concern in San Francisco, where traditionally there's always been a balance between the comfortable and the nonconformists, says former Mayor Art Agnos.

"The struggle to keep people who make between $60,000 and $150,000 a year is what we're facing in San Francisco. That's who the struggle is for today," Agnos says. "Frankly, it's all but over for the poor in this city."

More Development To Come

The evictions and the fear they engender come as the city is booming. Construction cranes crowd the downtown horizon. Pricey new restaurants serve the well-heeled tech crowd. Million-dollar condos sell for cash as soon as they come on the market.

So in a city that takes pride in its quirky diversity, there's a palpable sense that the bohemian days of live and let live are slipping away, Agnos says.

"We're not saying wealthy people shouldn't live here," he says. "What we're saying is we're losing the balance and the opportunity that has always been the promise of San Francisco."

San Francisco has endured similar periods when its housing supply has been squeezed, like during the last dot-com boom.

And each time, Agnos says, the city has become that much less affordable.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
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