Is the Ellis Act killing San Francisco

There is a popular narrative that Ellis Act evictions are wildly up since the tech boom really began.  This narrative is true… kind of.

Broken glass and a broken jaw
Lies are told in a Southern drawl
— Lamb of God, "Again We Rise"

For those of you who don’t read SF-ish press, there is an uproar about evictions from (usually rent-controlled) apartments, in favor of owner-occupied housing. These evictions are often done under the auspices of the Ellis Act.

It’s easy to find articles that excoriate the Act: Business Insider touts that “A 30-year-Old Law is Creating A Crisis in San Francisco”.  The article points out, among other things, that “speculation has become fairly common practice in San Francisco, exponentially driving rent up across the Bay Area.”

The article cites an SFGate article that, in turn, cites (but does not provide a link to) a city report.  Although that is sloppy, they helpfully provide a chart of the numbers from the study.

And the numbers only vaguely support their claims.

First, the analysis suffers from ignoring the law of small numbers: Ellis Act evictions have “skyrocketed” by 170% between 2009 and 2012, while all evictions have increased by “only” 38%.  True, but the Ellis Act evictions started at a base of about 43 per year, going up to a final value of about 116 per year over the three-year period.  Saying that there have been about 100 total additional Ellis Act evictions in the past 3 years is less impressive.  Especially when compared to the overall evictions increase of (total) about 750 additional evictions over that same period.

This issue is minor compared to the selection of time window.  The same SFGate article points out that, in the year 2000, there were about 400 Ellis Act evictions, at a time when housing prices were at the lowest point in the reported period.  Using 2000 as the start of the analysis would yield a headline akin to “Ellis Act evictions are down 75% in the past decade, while housing prices are up almost 50%”, with a subtext of how great landlords are in SF, since they aren’t kicking renters out even though their houses would be worth so much more on the open market.

That conclusion is equally valid, based solely on the math, but makes for less compelling press.