Right to Counsel

Supervisors and tenants rights groups squabble over the best way to offer eviction defense.

Supervisors London Breed and Jeff Sheehy announced a plan Tuesday to offer legal service to renters who are served eviction notices. It’s pitched as a right to civil counsel — similar to that which individuals accused of a crime receive.

“San Francisco still doesn’t have a law that exists which give tenants the right to counsel,” Breed says. “Ninety percent of eviction cases go unrepresented, and it severely affects the outcome of those cases. The city already spends $4.4 million on legal services for eviction defense for low-income individuals, but we are incredibly limited and can only serve a small percentage of those who actually need help.”

At first read, the proposed legislation sounds good. In a city plagued by evictions, the right to an attorney could be a way to hand a little more power to the renters, who face teams of property owners’ lawyers skilled in the ins and outs of legally removing tenants from their homes.

But dig a little under the surface and the legislation raises more questions than it answers. Sheehy says the plan will “provide immediate relief for our most vulnerable — seniors, people with HIV/AIDS, and longtime residents” — a narrow category, and one that implies someone over 65 would receive the right to counsel, whereas a 35-year-old may not.

Breed says the legislation will only apply to people earning a certain Area Median Income — but didn’t define what that was.

And the funds would only go toward victims of “no-fault evictions” — a vague term that again looks good on paper, but gets tricky once it’s broken down. If a tenant has a roommate the landlord claimed they didn’t know was living there, or someone leaves a stroller in the lobby repeatedly, or a service dog isn’t properly licensed, any eviction notices served would technically fall under the “at fault” category.

Finally, the amount the city would spend on such a venture also seems up for debate: Breed quoted $4.4 million, Sheehy $3.9 million.

Oddly, the “tenants, legal non-profit organizations, and tenant advocates” listed on the press release who would be attending the supervisors’ announcement failed to appear. That was not an accident.

“We find it odd that after all these years, supervisors would suddenly introduce this kind of legislation with no outreach to the SF Tenants Union, less than two weeks after we announced a ballot measure on this exact topic,” says Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union.

The ballot measure Varma references, the No Eviction Without Representation Initiative, calls for all tenants faced with eviction the right to legal counsel — regardless of age, medical status, income, or time lived in S.F.

“San Franciscans believe our judicial system should give everyone a fair shake, but when the vast majority of tenants evicted from their home don’t even have a lawyer, the one-sided result is anything but fair,” tenant lawyer and former District 5 supervisorial candidate Dean Preston says. “This initiative will ensure that, if you’re facing eviction, you will have someone by your side.”

When asked why some of the city’s major tenants’ rights organizations — such as the SF Tenants Union or Tenants Together, were not involved, Breed says they have “not only not reached out to my office, but they have not reached out to Sup. Sheehy’s office. There’s no need for a ballot initiative because we can do this by ordinance. Why wait to do something like this on the ballot when we can do it directly at the Board of Supervisors? The ballot measure is just a waste of time.”

Jon Golinger, campaign manager for the ballot initiative, disagrees, saying, “This is nothing but a political power play by City Hall politicians desperate to try to derail a citizens’ ballot initiative, but it won’t work.”

As the June election is still more than six months away, and they haven’t started to collect the 9,485 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot, Golinger and his cohorts had largely kept a low profile about the measure — but the last-minute presser called at City Hall forced them to come out of the closet quickly.

There’s no date set for which the Board of Supervisors will review Sheehy and Breed’s legislation.

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