By Ballot or Board Vote, "Right to Counsel" Will Come to S.F.

Monday, December 11, 2017
Diego Aguilar-Canabal
Bay City Beacon

San Francisco is likely to provide free legal representation for tenants facing eviction. But in this City’s fractious political climate, the devil’s always in the details.

Following in the footsteps of New York City’s historic Right to Civil Counsel program for eviction proceedings, two competing efforts in San Francisco seek to ensure free legal representation for renters fighting to stay in their homes.

Supervisors Jeff Sheehy and London Breed recently released the full text of their ordinance that would establish the Office of Tenant Assistance. Their legislation seeks to make permanent a one-year pilot program introduced by then-Supervisor David Chiu in 2012. A subsequent report of the pilot program found not only that tenants with legal representation were less likely to face homelessness, but that this in fact resulted in a substantial cost saving to the city, which would otherwise have to provide services for more households living on the streets.

Now a member of the California State Assembly, Chiu endorsed their ordinance in a press conference that appeared light on details. The premature announcement inevitably opened the Supervisors up to widespread criticism that the completed ordinance may ultimately abate.

Sheehy and Breed’s ordinance comes hot on the heels of a ballot measure initiative introduced by writer Jon Golinger and tenant defense lawyer Dean Preston. Their measure also mentions the success of the 2012 pilot program, noting that “tenants faced with legal eviction proceedings in the San Francisco Superior Court were taken to court without legal representation in 80% to 90% of eviction lawsuits[.]”

Activists have been canvassing parks and street corners to gather signatures for the No Eviction Without Representation Act of 2018. The proposed ordinance must receive 9,485 valid signatures by registered voters in order to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Given that a master tenant has virtually unilateral leeway to evict subleasing tenants, both the ballot measure and Sheehy’s ordinance make an exception for these cases. In other words, if you’re subletting your residence and facing eviction, the city won’t provide you with a lawyer, because those types of evictions are legally ironclad.

Sheehy and Breed’s ordinance adds another exception, prohibiting tenants facing eviction due to domestic violence charges from receiving legal representation through the program. However, the ballot measure calls for implementation by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) within 12 months of passage. It’s possible that MOHCD could add similar exceptions on its own.

Because Breed and Sheehy announced their legislation before its full text was available, critics were quick to poke holes in their effort, which some political observers saw as an effort to undermine a more comprehensive measure by Golinger. Preston, who ran an unsuccessful effort to unseat Breed in District 5 last year, was naturally loath to concede a political win for his opponent. But even SF Weekly raised questions—namely, as to whether the Supervisors’ bill would cover all eviction proceedings, or only “no-fault” evictions, as an early press release indicated.

Sheehy’s office has since clarified that the intent of the press release was only to emphasize no-fault evictions, and the implication that this bill would only cover those proceedings was made in error. The full text of the bill lays to rest many of the prior concerns that the Supervisors’ effort would exclude a myriad of eviction cases.

“Our legislation would make this now-expired pilot program a permanent city service,” Supervisor Sheehy explained via email. “The new office would provide full legal representation for all tenants facing eviction, regardless of their income, age, immigration status, or type of eviction proceeding. This program would only exclude eviction proceedings in cases of domestic violence, owner-occupied units [or master tenants], and residences already covered by federal or state programs.”

Sheehy said that his office had been working closely with Assemblymember Chiu to implement the structure of his pilot program on a more permanent basis.

“Based on 609 of the tenants assisted through the [2012] pilot program, providing them with legal assistance to keep them off the streets saved the city over $18,000 per night,” he explained. “Homelessness in our city is both morally unacceptable and fiscally irresponsible. San Francisco values should include a right to counsel and a right to housing for all… Everyone in San Francisco deserves a home. The Office of Tenant Assistance will ensure that everyone who needs a lawyer gets one, too.“

Issue: 
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