A day after being sworn into office, newly elected District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston on Tuesday moved on an issue near and dear to him — ensuring that every San Francisco renter is is able to access tax-funded legal representation when faced with eviction.
The San Francisco Examiner reported in September that while the year-long grace period had come and gone to fully implement Proposition F — a 2018 measure approved by 55 percent of voters that guarantees legal representation in eviction proceedings — not every renter who needs an attorney was getting one as prescribed under the new law.
At his first board meeting as supervisor on Tuesday, Preston, a tenants rights activist and attorney, called for a hearing on Prop. F’s implementation. The hearing, for which a date has not yet been set, aims to gather data and uncover barriers to the law’s implementation.
Preston authored and championed Prop. F, and its passage made San Francisco the second city nationwide to offer tenants legal aid from the beginning to the resolution of an eviction — in theory.
“What I know for sure is that there are people right now who are being evicted and who go to avail themselves of their free attorney under Prop. F and who are turned away,” Preston said in an interview earlier this month, prior to assuming office.
At the time, Preston indicated that he planned to “dig in” to what went wrong.
The Examiner’s inquiry this Fall revealed gaps in funding that translated to a shortage of attorneys able to do the work.
An initial $5.8 million was secured to implement the measure, and a city spokesperson confirmed that the “right to counsel” program had received a total of $9 million. The city began shoring up legal services prior to the law going into effect.
The funding was spread across ten service providers and was supposed to pay for hiring an additional 47 attorneys by July 1.
But at the end of September only 37 attorneys had been hired, and it is estimated that only about half of the tenants seeking full-scope representation under Prop. F were getting it — a clear violation that could expose The City to lawsuits and vulnerable tenants to displacement, said Preston.
”If you only provide the lawyer to two-thirds of the people or less, then the landlords can gamble, they can roll the dice,” he said.
Preston said already he has heard from tenant groups about the need for higher salaries to help with the recruitment of tenant attorney.
He added that Prop. F currently does not require annual reports measuring its success, but that the Board of Supervisors could require this moving forward and make other amendments.
“I’m not interested in [stating] the changes that need to happen. I want to dig in and find out what the shortfall is and why we are not providing it,” he said.
Preston was elected in November after a close race against former Supervisor Vallie Brown, and is completing the term begun by Mayor London Breed when she was District 5 Supervisor. To keep the seat, Preston will have to run again next November.
While in office, Preston hopes to fortify tenant protections by holding bad landlords accountable through the potential creation of an Office of Landlord Licensing.
Landlords in San Francisco of four or more units are already required to register as a business with The City. Preston said that he would like to add a licensing requirement that would make them subject to training and regulation.
Landlords who consistently mistreat their tenants or engage in fraud could see their licenses revoked, he said. A similar program already exists in Los Angeles, called the Rent Escrow Account Program (REAP).
“It’s something that I always felt was really out of whack, that you need a license to operate a cafe, drive a motor vehicle, to open a bar, a license to practice law, a license to do just about most things that have some level of health and safety risks or issues,” said Preston.
“And yet a landlord can own 10 or 20 buildings that have horrible conditions, endanger people’s lives, engage in fraud or criminal conduct… but not lose their right to be a landlord,” he added.
Preston noted that he is still exploring how such a program would be implemented and what size buildings would be subject to it, and has not yet come forward with a proposal.
“It’s not something I’m going to move on on day one, but it’s something I’m very interested in,” he said.
Rent control at Midtown
Starting in early 2020, Preston said that he plans to meet with tenants of the city-owned Midtown Park Apartments, a Western Addition housing complex, to explore extending rent control protections to them.
Midtown tenants, who for years organized against the complex’s planned demolition fearing displacement, have also successfully ousted nonprofit property manager Mercy Housing. The complex is currently under The City’s control.
Preston said he plans to consult the City Attorney’s Office to explore the legality of rent control at Midtown.
“’Right now publicly owned property is exempt from our local rent control law. There was a question in the Midtown case whether that applied here or not — it went through the courts and the courts decided rent control did not apply,” said Preston, adding that he would attempt to change that.
“I think we could do it by an ordinance,” he said. “I think the rent control ordinance creates an exemption and we can modify that.”
Preston said that if successful, Midtown could serve as a “real pilot for social housing.”
Navigation center in D5
Furthermore, Preston said that he would be supportive of adding a navigation center for the homeless in District 5. On Tuesday, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney re-introduced legislation that would require every supervisorial district to open a low-barrier homeless shelter.
Preston said that he is “critical of the lack of progress” by his predecessor in moving on finding a site to build a navigation shelter in the district.
“Whatever was being discussed or thought of was not occurring in any public way,” he said.
Preston is also inheriting another challenge of Brown’s tenure — how to temporarily activate the now empty Stanyan Street lot where a McDonald’s restaurant shuttered last year and an affordable housing project is slated to rise in the near future.
“That property has been vacant and unused except for a little bit of parking for now 18 months or more — nothing is happening,” said Preston. “To me that would have been a great site for [homeless services] and still might be, depending on the timeline.”
After soliciting proposals for the sites’ use, the activation process was put on hold by Brown, who said construction on the affordable housing project planned there could begin sooner than expected due to the passage of a $600 million housing bond in November.
“We need to fulfill the promise that Mayor London Breed made to the district, Vallie Brown made to the district and I’m making to the district to build a navigation center,” Preston said.