Last year, more than 1,600 San Francisco renters received eviction notices. Some of them fought back in court, but many — even those who had a good case — gave up and moved out because they didn’t know their legal rights.
That could all change in June, as voters consider Proposition F, which would provide free legal help to anyone facing eviction.
If the ballot initiative passes, it would be a watershed moment for a growing national movement. Cities across the country — especially those with housing shortages — are making legal counsel a basic right, not just a privilege for those who can afford it.
Imbalance at eviction court
Walk into the Hayward Hall of Justice any old Wednesday and you’ll be smack dab in the middle of the Bay Area’s housing crisis: Eviction court.
Generally, there are three different kinds of people milling around, waiting their turn: The landlords and property managers, lots of nervous tenants — and two very different types of lawyers.
On the owners’ side, those layers are well paid. But on the tenants’ side, they’re usually volunteers, or work for nonprofits.
“People just don't know their rights,” says Joe Colangelo, with the Eviction Defense Center. “I wouldn't even know my rights if I hadn't been doing this type of work.”
Colangelo’s clients qualify for legal assistance, paid for on a sliding scale, because they’re low-income.
He says they’re almost 90 percent black or Latino. And without his legal guidance, many of them would have to leave their homes, and their communities.
“Without my organization or organizations like ours that do this work, it would be a stampede of people of color leaving, and we're all that stands in the way,” Colangelo says.
These eviction cases are life-changing dramas that play out in courthouses across the Bay Area, and around the country.
And wherever you go, there’s an imbalance. Most landlords have lawyers, while studies show only about ten percent of tenants do.
“A lot of tenants lose in eviction cases, even if there was no merit to the case at all,” explains attorney Dean Preston, the executive director of the statewide advocacy group Tenants Together.
Preston is also the chief proponent of the “No Eviction Without Representation Act” on San Francisco’s June 5 ballot.
“Everyone deserves the right to counsel in the same way that people deserve a public defender, regardless of what they're accused of,” he says.
If voters approve Proposition F, anyone facing eviction in San Francisco would be entitled to an attorney — for free. The city already budgets about $2 million per year to help low-income tenants in eviction proceedings. But that’s not enough to provide legal counsel to everyone who needs it.
“It’s so critical to have an attorney for your trial because a lot of the cases really are just seeing, ‘Will the tenant cave?”’ says attorney Carolyn Gold, who runs the landlord-tenant program at the Bar Association of San Francisco.
Last year their pro-bono lawyers represented 642 tenants facing eviction at settlement conferences. That’s less than half the total eviction notices issued in the city.
Gold is the first to admit, the current assistance model is not working.
“You cannot depend on pro bono to make sure that everybody will have an attorney,” she says.
The way Proposition F is written, there are no specifics about who exactly would provide the legal assistance, or how it would be paid for; just that the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development has 12 months to come up with a plan.
This was a strategic move: Keep it vague, and let elected officials figure out how to structure and fund the program.
The city controller estimates Proposition F could cost up to $5.6 million annually. That price tag is the main ammunition being used by the measure’s primary opponents: the San Francisco Apartment Association.
Spokesman Charley Goss says taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for lawyers to represent wealthy people. And not everyone facing eviction deserves the help of city-funded lawyers.
“People are being evicted for damaging the building [or for] being a nuisance for other residents in the building,” he says. “We don't believe that the city and taxpayers should fund eviction defense, for those instances.”
Displacement crisis antidote?
But Proposition F’s advocates point out that most people facing eviction are low-income, and even if a small number of wealthy tenants chose to take advantage of a free attorney, the program would save money in the long run.
“It costs a tremendous amount to our society, when people lose their evictions and lose their housing,” says John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
Pollock, who supports similar “Right to Counsel” initiatives in cities across the country, says spending money to keep people in their homes is a wise investment of public resources.
“If they do wind up in a shelter, if they do wind up in the jail, if they do wind up having to apply for public benefits because they lose their jobs — these are all costs that we all pay for, and they're significantly more expensive than paying for a tenant’s attorney,” he explains.
Pollock says momentum behind this issue picked up in 2017, when New York City became the first-in-the-nation to pass a law establishing a right to counsel in housing court.
New Yorkers who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line get full representation.
Those with higher incomes get one free consultation with an attorney.
New York, San Francisco, and other jurisdictions which have increased funding for eviction defense in recent years saw more people able to stay in their homes.
Pollock says a 2011 Harvard study found that tenants who had lawyers throughout the entire eviction process did twice as well as those who only got limited legal advice.
“They didn't ever pay any money to the landlords. They got more time to move out when they had to move out,” Pollock says. “And they retained possession of their units at about twice the rate that those who just got legal advice did.”
So could the right to counsel help address San Francisco’s housing crisis?
“It’s an important point. It’s like a lynchpin,” says Gold. She explains that Proposition F could slow the exodus of low-income renters out of the city.
“You want to keep people housed, who have affordable housing, because they’re in a rent-controlled unit or they’re in subsidized housing,” she says. “If those people lose their homes, you’ve just compounded your housing crisis because there’s nowhere for them to go.”
If passed, San Francisco’s ballot measure would be the first right to counsel law approved by voters. That could inspire organizing efforts in other cities, across the Bay Area and beyond.