Dec 19, 2014 · 4 minutes

In 2012, Jack Halprin bought an apartment building on Guerrero St. in San Francisco's Mission District for $1.4 million. According to a wrongful eviction lawsuit brought against Halprin by resident Susan Coss, Halprin moved into the building and evicted Coss, who lived in the unit below him, so that his then-domestic partner, Daniel Ortiz, could move into it. This is known as a "move-in eviction" and, assuming certain requirements are met, it's perfectly legal.

But Halprin and Ortiz reportedly split up before Ortiz even moved in -- in fact, according to Coss' lawsuit, the move-in eviction was implemented without Ortiz's knowledge, which would make it illegal. Now, Halprin is evicting four more units under the city's Ellis Act, which allows owners to remove tenants without cause as long as the building is taken off the market as a rental property. Halprin's intentions for the property are still unclear, but often these units are transformed into high-priced condominiums.

Sounds like yet another tale of shady landlord tactics and displacement that has become all too common in San Francisco, where the median rent has skyrocketed to $3,200. But there's one detail that makes the Guerrero fiasco unique from your average gentrification saga and at the same time enormously representative of these very tensions:

Halprin works for Google.

Over the past two years, numerous Silicon Valley technology firms have attracted the ire of San Francisco citizens who feel that the influx of young tech workers is altering the culture -- and affordability -- of their city for the worst. But perhaps none has taken more licks than Google, with protesters routinely blocking -- and sometimes damaging -- the company's private shuttle buses that ferry workers who live in San Francisco and Oakland to its Cupertino campus. And with Halprin, an attorney who heads up eDiscovery for Google, accused of some of pretty unseemly tactics, the connection here between Google and evictions is even more overt than usual -- and fair housing advocates have taken notice.

Earlier this week, protesters held a Google bus blockade just a stone's throw away from Halprin's Guerrero St. property. When Halprin saw the protesters as he prepared to get on the bus, he literally ran back inside his home to the sound of protesters chanting, "Eviction Jack." They later picketed outside his door, singing Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack."

Here's a video of the protest and Halprin's retreat:

Google's Jack Halprin Runs Away From the Tenants He's Evicting 16 Dec 2014 from Peter Menchini on Vimeo.

Are the protests a reasonable response to a perpetrator of some of San Francisco's ugliest housing practices? Or is it harassment of a man who's simply capitalizing on the realities of the city's real estate market? And if it's the former, should Google have to answer for one of its high-ranking employees?

For Google's part, it offered the kind of slick response we've come to expect from a company that's been arguing it's not "evil" for over a decade and a half. In a statement provided to Mission Local, spokesperson Meghan Casserly wrote, "While we don’t comment on employees personal lives, we continue to work hard to be good neighbors in the Bay Area. This December, to cap $20 million in local giving for 2014, we announced $2 million in Google funding to three San Francisco organizations working to help our city’s homeless and newly displaced residents. We’re committed to the community and look forward to doing more in 2015."

As for Halprin, while the eviction of Coss to make room for Halprin's then partner might have been illegal, the lawsuit she brought against him has already been settled for an undisclosed sum. And as for the Ellis Act evictions, as long as Halprin does not intend to rent out the units and perhaps sells them as condos instead, his actions are entirely legal. For these reasons, there's likely little legal recourse for the remaining tenants and their supporters.

All this raises the question: Should the Ellis Act be repealed? And should the city implement stronger eviction protections?

Jonathan Bornstein, a Bay Area lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant disputes, is greatly sympathetic toward San Francisco residents who have been displaced by the Ellis Act and owner move-in evictions like the ones Halprin had implemented.

"You could grow up here, go to school, get a decent job, and you can’t afford to live here," Bornstein says. "I’m from Cleveland. That doesn’t happen there."

But he also says that stronger eviction protections would only make rents rise even higher.

"The more protections you create, you reduce the supply when the demand keeps increasing," Bornstein says. "The more protections there are for veteran tenants, the more expensive it is for newer tenants."

That's because the real problem is not that it's too easy to kick someone out of their home -- it's that there is so little housing available that landlords will do everything in their power to squeeze the most money out of their properties, which often means evicting long-time tenants whenever possible.

"I think the biggest problem is there isn’t enough housing. They need to do high density housing and that’s the only way to solve this problem."

If San Francisco would simply build more housing, then the city's rents and property values wouldn't rise so sharply in response to the influx of new well-paid jobs created by tech firms. And while stories like this make it easy to blame Google for displaced residents caused by evictions, legitimate or otherwise, in truth the company deserves very little of the blame. And besides, when there are so many other more legitimate reasons to criticize Google, why pick a red herring like this one?