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San Francisco needs more money for eviction lawyers

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Voters passed a proposition in 2018 to provide legal help for anyone facing eviction

A book with a blue cover reading “landlord-tenant” law lying on a desk with a piece of paper that reads “eviction notice.” Via Shutterstock

If you’re facing eviction in San Francisco, the city owes you a lawyer. But City Hall hasn’t been able to provide the mandated advocacy in every instance because there’s not enough money to cover attorney’s fees.

Despite the lack of funding, Supervisor Dean Preston, a former tenant’s attorney who wrote the law before winning office, deems the voter-mandated law to provide publicly funded eviction lawyers (i.e., Proposition F) a success. Preston argued at a Monday hearing that since the representation that the city did provide spared hundreds of people from eviction in 2019 that this proves SF should put more money into it.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the program, presented findings about the first six months of its execution on Monday, including:

  • Between July and December of last year, 1,634 households participated in the program, and 1,088 of them got a lawyer. While the rest of the households did receive some level of legal help, they couldn’t get full representation due to a lack of lawyers on duty. Preston noted that “outcomes are far worse” for those who go without.
  • Of those 1,634 households, two-thirds of them ended up staying in their homes. The report noted that even those who had to vacate benefitted in some way from the Proposition F program, often by staying longer in a unit than they likely would have without legal help.
  • The most common (58 percent) alleged reason for attempted eviction was lack of rent payment. Nuisance violations were next most common at 19 percent, then breach of lease at 16 percent. No-fault eviction attempts made up seven percent of consultations.
  • Unsurprisingly, the program is most often used by low-income households, with 85 percent of Proposition F beneficiaries classified as “low” or “extremely-low” income. Nine percent qualified as moderate incomes.

Hunting for more funding, Preston took pains to sing the praises of the legal help program but also argued that its failings were from monetary shortfalls. He said, “Prop. F required full implementation by July 2019—we’re not there yet,” adding that “universal programs need to be exactly that—universal.”

Voters passed the legal guarantee in 2018, favoring it by a margin of more than 55 percent. The proposition did not include funds to meet the program’s budget, leaving the city to reconcile funding at a future date.

SF City Controller Ben Rosenfield testified at the time that it’s difficult to estimate the cost of the legal program but guessed that costs might be as much as $5.6 million annually.

SF City Hall doesn’t do the hiring but rather directs funds and clients to existing legal nonprofits who do. This makes the budgeting tricky, since the city already contributed money to many of these eviction assistance groups before this law; with the new rules in place more money is needed, but nobody is quite sure how much.

Before Proposition F, the city spent over $4 million annually on eviction defense. That sum more than doubled in the current budget, but evidently was not enough.