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Randy Shaw's Power Plays 

Sixteen years ago, Randy Shaw started a housing clinic with $50 and a good idea: educating tenants. Now he's got more than $900,000 a year to spend -- and clout to match.

Wednesday, Mar 27 1996
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It's a scene out of an activist's handbook.
Upstairs at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), early afternoon. A meeting of the ombudspersons -- tenants of SRO hotels who are paid $115 a month to monitor hotel conditions for the THC. The housing clinic's founder and executive director, Randy Shaw, is sitting at the head of the table, and from outside the windows it is possible to hear the shouts and brakes of the traffic passing through the Tenderloin on the pavement below.

The meeting of a dozen people is just getting under way, and everybody watches Shaw as he speaks. At the moment, he's not talking about hotel conditions at all. He's indicating a pile of ballot initiative signature forms in the middle of the table.

"Wayne brought in 27 signatures for the living wage measure," Shaw is saying, talking about the upcoming initiative that, if it qualifies for the ballot, will ask Californians to raise the minimum wage. "The mayor has just supported it strongly. With the volunteer effort it's hard to get the signatures -- when it's rainy, when it's stormy. We have until the middle of April."

We. In political activism, that's the crucial word. And make no mistake about it: This is activism, grass roots down so deep you can smell the new-mown hay. "It's an example of moving ahead with an agenda," Shaw will say later, describing a tactic he recommends in his book, The Activist's Handbook, which is being published by the University of California Press in June. "That's an example of a progressive constituency moving forward."

It's also an example of how Shaw is able to marshal people and resources paid for in part with public money to his own political ends -- and an insight into why, over the years, Shaw has been extraordinarily successful at moving his agenda forward through the sometimes labyrinthine realms of San Francisco politics.

Over the last decade and a half, Shaw has built the nonprofit Tenderloin Housing Clinic from a shoestring legal outfit into an efficient organization with annual revenues of more than $900,000. Using a combination of public and private financing, Shaw has built an empire and consolidated enough power to influence city boards and to sway voters at the ballot box. What started as a $50 good idea at Hastings law school has become a perpetual-motion legal machine, one that has placed Shaw at the center of homelessness issues in San Francisco. And along the way, Shaw has become one of the unelected power players in City Hall, parlaying his reputation as a savvy and effective left-wing activist into true political clout.

But if Shaw and his Tenderloin Housing Clinic have become essential to San Francisco's anti-poverty programs, not everyone is a fan. Some residents in the SRO hotels say he isn't doing enough to improve housing conditions there, despite the THC's sizable city contract. Attorneys who represent some of the hotel owners the THC sues complain that Shaw is using the resources and the political weight of his clinic to make money rather than to right wrongs. And twice in recent years, state computers in Sacramento have flagged the Tenderloin Housing Clinic's annual returns, noting "common errors and omissions" in the financial reports, according to documents on file at the California Department of Justice.

It is perhaps the nature of activists to be alternately revered and feared. And there is no question that Shaw and his Tenderloin Housing Clinic are effective. The long list of successful lawsuits alone attests to that. But effective to what end -- everyone's? Or Shaw's own?

In 1980, a group of first-year students at Hastings College of the Law had a bright idea. Disturbed by the loss of low-income housing in the Tenderloin due to Hastings' expansion, the students got together and incorporated as the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, intending to provide free assistance to Tenderloin residents.

"We were familiar with the problems Hastings had caused," attorney Guy Campisano, one of the original THC incorporators, explains. "We were very upset about it, and we wanted to do something in that community to help atone for the displacement."

The THC started with $50 and a basic premise: to help people help themselves. The first-year law students weren't lawyers yet, Campisano says, so they couldn't give legal advice, but they could and did -- with some training, he says, from the San Francisco Tenants' Union -- point people toward other resources that might help them defend themselves against evictions or get necessary repairs made.

"When we formed this group our idea was to make it self-perpetuating, getting new people involved in it," Campisano says. "We didn't view this as something we would do and stay with for a long period of time. We wanted to get a legacy going."

Eventually, Campisano and some other students moved on to other things. But Randy Shaw, one of the THC's original founders, stayed with it -- and lit it up.

By 1982, Shaw had started working full time for the clinic, on a $12,000 grant from the Berkeley Law Foundation, and in 1983, when he was 27, he won his first major public-interest lawsuit, one that challenged rules in residential hotels that banned daytime visitors. Since then, Shaw and other THC attorneys have gone to court on behalf of thousands of tenants, suing for, among other things, wrongful eviction, breach of habitability, and discrimination. The THC has taken on class-action cases, too -- suing on behalf of tenants charged an unlawful and unrefundable $100 "key deposit," for example, and on behalf of residents of a Tenderloin hotel who found their rooms too unsanitary and dangerous to live in. And the THC has litigated against city departments and contested laws passed by the Board of Supervisors, suing to force the building inspectors to hold prompt hearings on code violations, for example, and to bar the ability of landlords to pass through tax increases caused by bond measures to their tenants.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan

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