Legal Representation for Tenants
City-Funded Legal Representation for All Residential Tenants in Eviction Lawsuits Ordinance
Requires the city to create a program to provide full scope legal representation to residential tenants facing eviction.
What the Measure Would Do
This measure would require the City of San Francisco to create a program to provide legal representation for all San Francisco residential tenants facing eviction. Through this new program, tenants would be entitled to full-scope legal representation — meaning, among other things, that a lawyer would appear on behalf of the tenant in court proceedings and represent the tenant throughout the case — within 30 days of receiving an eviction notice or being served with an eviction lawsuit. The program would not be required to serve tenants who live in the same unit as the landlord or master tenant who is evicting them. All other tenants in the city could access these services regardless of income, unless a state or federal program already offers this scope of representation to a tenant. (In that case, the city and county would have no obligation to provide legal services.) The city controller’s analysis estimates that the annual cost of this program would be between $4.2 and $5.6 million in addition to what the city currently spends on legal services for tenants facing eviction.
The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development would be responsible for creating this program. The department would have roughly a year to implement the initiative.
The initiative could be amended by the Board of Supervisors in the future if needed to further the purpose of the initiative.
San Francisco currently contracts with nonprofit organizations to provide legal services to tenants facing eviction. A range of legal services are offered at various stages of the eviction process, but the city does not provide full-scope representation at all stages to all tenants. Currently:
- All tenants have access to low-cost legal assistance in responding to an eviction lawsuit.
- All tenants have access to free legal representation for a mandatory settlement meeting that occurs before a lawsuit goes to trial.
- A limited number of eligible tenants (those who qualify on the basis of income, age or disability, for example) have access to free legal representation at all stages of the eviction process.
The city currently spends $4.4 million annually on eviction-related legal services (including $2 million on full-scope legal representation), as well as $2 million on tenant rights education and counseling.
In 2012, the City of San Francisco passed an ordinance declaring that San Francisco was a “right to counsel” city, meaning that San Franciscans had a right to counsel in civil cases, not just criminal ones. (Currently, the Public Defender’s Office provides legal representation in criminal cases for those who can’t afford a private attorney.) The ordinance funded a pilot program to provide free legal services in a limited number of civil cases to address “basic human needs,” including housing for San Francisco residents with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The city contracted with the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) to provide these services. The pilot funds were used to hire a staff attorney to help increase the full-scope legal representation offered to tenants, on top of the pro bono assistance provided by 26 law firms during the pilot program. A review of this pilot program by the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest at Stanford Law School found many positive outcomes, including that tenants were more likely to stay in their homes and avoid homelessness when provided the necessary legal services.1 This study and others have found that right-to-counsel pilot programs result in cost savings for cities by keeping households out of homeless shelters and other emergency services or programs.2
In addition to continuously funding this pilot program, the city increased funding for a range of legal services to tenants (from approximately $700,000 in 2012 to $4.4 million today). An estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of tenants are represented in housing court in San Francisco, compared to 10 percent nationwide. However, in stark contrast, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys in housing court nationwide.
In the fall of 2017, a group of tenant advocates began to collect signatures to put this measure on the ballot in the hopes of creating a program providing universal access to full-scope legal representation. At the same time, Supervisors Breed and Sheehy introduced a draft ordinance that would create an Office of Tenant Assistance to provide full-scope legal representation to tenants facing eviction. Supervisor Sheehy subsequently endorsed Prop. F. At the time of this writing, the supervisors’ legislation is awaiting a hearing in the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee.
- This measure could help tenants stay in their homes. There is significant evidence nationwide that legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings is an effective way to prevent households from entering homelessness.
- Studies of pilot programs around the country have shown that right-to-counsel programs result in net cost savings by keeping residents out of shelters.
- The knowledge that all tenants have representation could serve as a deterrent to landlords who abuse the eviction process.
- The measure has been drafted to be flexible, leaving implementation details to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
- This measure could be accomplished legislatively and does not need to be on the ballot.
- The measure would require the city to create a new program without a dedicated funding source to cover the costs of the program, which could be significant.
- This measure is not targeted to those who are most vulnerable. A program that would provide lower- and moderate-income households with full-scope services but offer less-intensive legal services to higher-income tenants could be a better use of public dollars.
SPUR believes that a right-to-counsel program would deter evictions and would help with homelessness prevention, an important part of reducing homelessness overall. While we have serious reservations about recommending a measure that would create a new program without a dedicated funding source, the depth and breadth of San Francisco’s housing shortage and affordability crisis merits this step. And while we’d prefer a means-tested program, an estimated 80 percent of tenants facing eviction in San Francisco are at or below 80 percent of area median income, which means this program would be likely to serve those who need it most.
Housing security is foundational to many aspects of well-being, including educational attainment, mental health and economic mobility, and San Francisco is struggling amid an affordability crisis of historic proportions. The city can — and should — be a national leader on this progressive issue.
1“San Francisco Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program Documentation Report,” prepared by the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest, Stanford Law School, May 2014. The report does note difficulties in collecting full data to assess the program, including issues related to which cases are referred to counsel, as well as the JDC’s reliance on self-reporting from volunteer attorneys.
2In 2017, New York City passed a right-to-counsel law for all tenants with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level who are facing eviction proceedings. Other places that have studied right-to-counsel pilot programs are Boston, the South Bronx in New York, and Washington, D.C.