Right to Counsel Coordinator Tim Coltman goes over information with clients at the Eviction Defense Collaborative in September 2019. The program appears set to receive a funding boost in the next year’s budget despite overall budget cuts. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tenant right to counsel funding expanded during budget process

City, agencies are braced for a surge of evictions in wake of pandemic

Administrators of San Francisco’s tenant right to counsel program spent much of this year anticipating budget cuts that would have hampered their ability to secure full legal representation for tenants facing eviction.

Instead, the eviction prevention program is expected to receive another $750,000 expansion to its existing budget of $9.8 million — no small feat during a pandemic budget, according to Supervisor Dean Preston’s office, which pushed for the expansion. The Board of Supervisors Budget Committee approved $10.5 million for the program’s current and next fiscal year early Thursday morning.

“With this budget, we are taking a major step forward for universal right to counsel for all San Francisco tenants,” said Preston, who authored Proposition F, the 2018 ballot measure that launched the program. “I appreciate the support of my colleagues in not only restoring the proposed cuts, but expanding the right to counsel program at a time when it is desperately needed to protect tenants from losing their homes.”

The proposal for the tenant right to counsel (TRC) program managed by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development originally included $9.3 million for fiscal year 2020-2021, which doesn’t include $500,000 in cash rental assistance often grouped with the program. TRC had $9 million for FY 2019-2020, according to MOHCD.

For much of the year, the program’s agencies, including the Asian Law Caucus and Tenderloin Housing Clinic, were uncertain they would receive the full $9.8 million, including that cash assistance, anticipated in January for FY 20-21 after being told to anticipate budget cuts. By the time more payments arrived in August, there was a $1.1 million shortfall, according to numbers compiled by Eviction Defense Collaborative and Preston’s office.

The shortfall was ultimately bridged after the program was examined by supervisors like Preston during a budget committee hearing with MOHCD on Aug. 12. Eviction Defense Collaborative, the program’s lead agency, ultimately had to lay off an attorney and left two positions unfilled due to uncertainty what funding would come through.

Should Mayor London Breed approve the budget, EDC and other program groups can plan for the next year and a half. However Breed on Thursday shared “deep concerns” about the supervisors’ use of $59 million in business tax reserves largely to boost city worker pay previously promised and said that she would use her “discretion and authority” to mitigate financial risk.

The additional $750,000 would roughly equate to a team of four lawyers that can serve another 200 households, said EDC Executive Director Martina Cucullu Lim.

“It’s completely a game-changer,” Cucullu Lim said. “It definitely makes it much easier for us to scale up, scale up fast and recruit the army of tenant rights advocates that are going to be supporting San Francisco’s tenants in the middle of this pandemic.”

The number of eviction cases filed in the aftermath of a coronavirus-caused economic downturn remains a big unknown, but officials widely expect to see a surge.

Earlier this month, the Judicial Council of California rescinded emergency orders that halted most eviction proceedings, effective Sept. 1. The California Legislature is in a mad dash to approve a bill around evictions by Aug. 31. Assembly Bill 1436, by San Francisco’s Assemblymember David Chiu, which would limit evictions due to coronavirus-related lack of payment, advanced in committee last week.

Breed’s mayoral eviction moratorium, which is currently set to end on Dec. 1 but could be extended again, coupled with Preston’s legislation that permanently bans evictions from coronavirus nonpayment during the emergency period, means that any surge in evictions in San Francisco will likely come later than much of the state.

But many people could have a tough time paying back rent on top of regular bills, depending on their employment situation.

“We are currently in the process of projecting the need to cover a surge in evictions, but the exact number is difficult to assess given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic/economic shutdown as well as the emergency tenant protections in place and on the horizon,” MOHCD spokesperson Max Barnes said in an email on Tuesday.

San Francisco became the first city in the nation to provide a universal right to counsel for tenants faced with eviction when voters approved Prop. F in 2018. Since then, the program has scaled up funding but can only provide full legal representation for two-thirds of eligible tenants, falling short of its promise of universal coverage. It’s unclear what that ratio is with the budget increase.

Tenants who benefitted from both full and limited-scope representation from July 2019 to December 2019 were 94 percent low or moderate income, 28 percent white, 22 percent Black, 23 percent Latino, and 21 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, according to MOHCD in February.

Sixty-seven percent of closed cases ended with the tenant staying in their homes —with 80 percent of Black clients winning those cases — leaving about 31 percent of closed cases resulting in the tenant moving out.

A likely eviction surge once the courts open could stretch the capacity of TRC agencies, who previously indicated they could have a tough time bracing for it without knowing what level of resources to expect. Before Thursday, funding for the following year was not yet determined.

“Right now, absolutely every little bit helps,” Cucullu Lim said. “The message regarding TRC from the supervisors is undoubtedly clear.”

The full Board of Supervisors will vote on the final budget in late September before Breed gives final approval.

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