San Francisco voted to provide tenants with lawyers in 2018. Start up is slow.

San Francisco voters passed the measure to provide tenants with legal counsel.  

Nearly 16 months have passed.  The City has provided only a portion of the necessary funding. A bigger problem, as explained to me by a well known and respected tenants attorney, is a lack of “experienced litigators” versed in housing law who can represent tenants.  

The low starting salary of under 60K per year discourages attorneys from applying for a job which requires both professional legal skills along with political smarts in high action San Francisco and its rent control ordinance.

 Finally, explains the attorney, “There is little in terms of support staff in the funding; paralegal, social workers.”  

Excerpted from San Francisco Examiner 9.22.2019

A 2018 measure guaranteeing every San Francisco tenant facing an eviction the right to legal representation is not yet living up to its promise due to funding gaps and a shortage of attorneys able to do the work, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Fully funding the Right to Counsel program as quickly as possible is a matter of priorities, according to Prop. F’s author, Dean Preston, the former executive directors of Tenants Together who is a current candidate in the District 5 race for supervisor.

“What I’m hearing from providers is that there is a funding gap that hasn’t been filled and that prevents the full hiring,” Preston told the Examiner on Friday. “At best it’s a matter of priorities. I hope it’s not a political football. I hope there’s a shared commitment to making sure it’s fully implemented.”

In the June 2018 election, 55 percent of San Francisco voters supported Proposition F, or the Right to Counsel program, making San Francisco the second city nationwide to establish a “universal right to counsel” for tenants. An initial $5.8 million was secured to implement the measure, and a city spokesperson confirmed the program has received a total of $9 million so far.

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But the 10 service providers who have received funding to provide the expanded legal services report that they are struggling to hire enough attorneys to meet the current demand.

The budget includes funds for a total of 47 new attorneys to be hired by July 1, but only 37 had been hired by that date, according to Cary Gold, director of litigation and policy at the Eviction Defense Collaborative. The organization was selected as the lead partner for the program under the supervision of The City’s Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

“[Tenant litigation] isn’t the most popular area of law for lawyers [and] a lot of the organizations are having to hire new attorneys without experience. So even if they have reached their total hiring goals they may not be at full capacity [because the new attorneys need training],” said Gold. “It’s a shaky start.”

But even if all 47 attorney positions had been filled by July 1, the current funding still wouldn’t be enough to provide every tenant eligible for full scope representation with the service, according to Gold.

According to the new law, full-scope representation — meaning representation throughout the eviction proceedings — is triggered 30 days after an eviction notice is served or once an unlawful detainer lawsuit has been filed. The representation is supposed to continue until the notice is withdrawn or the lawsuit is resolved.

Before Prop. F’s passage, only a handful of nonprofit organizations provided pro-bono attorneys for tenants. Some 80 percent of tenants were undergoing eviction proceedings without representation, according to the law’s proponents.

In an effort to describe the demand for legal representation in eviction proceedings, Gold said that EDC has 15 cases “on the settlement conference calendar” on Wednesday, of which seven have full scope attorneys. On Thursday, clients in only six of 11 cases scheduled for a settlement conference have full-scope representation.

According to the law, “they should all have full scope attorneys,” Gold said.

Dustin Helmer, an attorney with the Aids Legal Referral Panel, which is among the organizations now tasked with providing tenants with representation, said that part of the problem is that “there is not enough attention focused on retention.”

“Everyone acknowledges the housing crisis and knows its a problem. The city and tenants want a solution, and there’s a lot of money put into studies about homelessness and finding additional housing, but the people doing the actual work themselves need a bit more support from The City,” said Helmer.

“I expected things to get worse. I didn’t expect The City to have its act together,” he said. “People passed the measure, but how do we implement it? Where do we get the money from? Housing and everything that goes along with it is such a multifaceted issue,” he said.