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SF wants every renter to have access to an eviction lawyer

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Two competing new laws, one from city hall and one a grassroots ballot initiative, have the same goal

Photo by Thomas Hawk
Scene from 2015 San Francisco Pride parade.
Photo by Thomas Hawk

Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced a proposal for a new law that would grant renters facing eviction access to an attorney, something Board President London Breed says 90 percent of evictees lack.

Apparently this is a popular crusade these days. Two weeks prior to the proposal, a group called the Right To Counsel—organized by attorney Jon Golinger, the man previously behind the No Wall On the Waterfront campaign that scuttled development plans at 8 Washington—had the same idea, hoping to land an initiative furnishing legal aid on the June 2018 ballot.

The timing turned heads, with 48 Hills editor Tim Redmond suggesting that lawmakers wanted to “preempt or copy” the grassroots push.

But as SF Weekly points out, the board had considered a similar version of the program in 2012, when then Board President David Chiu floated a pilot version.

Although at first glance the two measures sound redundant, the difference is in how comprehensive each idea would be. Under the text of Golinger’s proposed ballot initiative:

The City and County of San Francisco shall establish, run, and fully fund a program to provide legal representation for all tenants within the City and County who are faced with legal proceedings to evict them from their residence.

This legal representation shall be available to a tenant thirty days after a tenant is served with an eviction notice

Board President Supervisor London Breed.
Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Pretty straightforward. On the other hand, the proposal by Breed and Supervisor Jeff Sheehy tailors representation more narrowly, affording a lawyer to low-income people unable to afford one themselves and also applying only to “no fault” eviction cases.

Under the latest rent board tally, of the 1,881 eviction attempts recorded in 2016 and early 2017, 1,179 were for alleged lease violations, nuisance complaints, non-payment, illegal uses of the unit, and other “fault” causes, which narrows the scope of the program considerably.

But the board bill is still at work in committee and may change and become more or less comprehensive before it finally comes to a vote.

On the other hand, the Right To Counsel page says that its more aggressive bill needs “to collect 17,000 signatures from registered SF voters by February 5, 2018” to even get a shot at becoming law, starting with a petition drive on December 2.