Tenant Right to Counsel Moves Forward

A system to manage eviction cases is coming together as Mayor London Breed picks partner organizations, post-Proposition F.

Despite clashing with proponents of June’s tenant right-to-counsel measure, it’s Mayor London Breed’s job now to select several organizations to receive the funds. This week, she announced that $5.8 million will be split among 11 groups to provide free counsel for any city renters served an eviction notice.

As a refresher, with the passage of Proposition F, San Francisco became the first city in California and second nationwide to require legal counsel for tenants. Evictions account for 17 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, and according to the urbanist nonprofit SPUR, legal aid is considered a low-cost intervention.

The city estimated it would need another $5.6 million to meet demand, but funding was not included in the proposition. Breed and the Board of Supervisors subsequently moved the budget around to add $5.8 million to last through fiscal year 2020.

The partner organizations to represent tenants are Eviction Defense Collaborative, AIDS Legal Referral Panel, Asian Law Caucus, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Bay Area Legal Aid, La Raza Centro Legal, Legal Assistance to the Elderly, Open Door Legal, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and the Bar Association of San Francisco and its affiliated-but-separate nonprofit, Justice & Diversity Center.

“As a lifelong renter, I know what it is like to face housing insecurity and the threat of eviction,” Breed said in a statement. “I fought to include funding for tenant legal-defense services in the budget because no one should face eviction alone without knowing their rights. This is one of the most important things we can do to prevent displacement and keep our residents housed.”

But some of that fighting was with tenants- rights advocates who drafted the legislation themselves. Breed didn’t initially support Prop. F, instead drafting a version with former-Supervisor Jeff Sheehy that would have applied only to low-income renters facing trickily defined “no-fault evictions.”

Prop. F, nicknamed No Eviction Without Representation, does not limit legal counsel based on a tenant’s age, medical status, or income, or the duration of time they’ve lived in the city.

City voters supported Prop. F, but some lingering ill will remains. Notably, Breed did not consult the measure’s earlier advocates, SF Tenants Union and Tenants Together, for either her legislation or during her press conference announcing the funds.

In response, San Francisco’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter protested Breed during the August announcement that funding had been allocated, which did not mention Prop. F’s organizers — including Dean Preston, its chief proponent (and Breed’s 2016 supervisorial challenger).

“We noticed that other groups had been invited but not the organizations that had been on the ground, working on it for almost a year before the ballot measure was passed,” DSA member Jennifer Bolen told the San Francisco Examiner at the protest. “To ignore all the groups that worked on it is heartbreaking.”

Tenants Together and SF Tenants Union didn’t seek an allocation of funds since they do volunteer counseling rather than defense but the latter’s political campaign director, Jennifer Fieber, says they are “pleased now to see our little bird fly on its own.” In announcing that it was the lead partner for the Tenant Right to Counsel program, Eviction Defense Collaborative credited the two in largely making the whole thing possible.

With $2.9 million to work with for the next couple years, EDC Executive Director Martina I. Cucullu Lim says her organization will design a centralized system to manage and distribute eviction cases to various partners.

The Justice & Diversity Center, which falls under Bay Area Legal Aid’s $1.9 million collaborative grant over the next two years, already has a new eviction-defense staff attorney and paralegal. They start next week, and the organization will be able to add another staff attorney in mid-2019. Overall, the nonprofit will be able to represent more than 350 tenants a year, says Director Teresa Lynn Friend.

“We know having an attorney represent a tenant in court significantly improves their odds of avoiding eviction,” Cucullu Lim says. “People across the country are seeing and feeling the devastating impact evictions are having on their friends, families, and neighbors — and recognizing the need for change. Tenant Right to Counsel is part of that change.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com |  @idamoj

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