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.
Last June, 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.
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 The representation is supposed to continue until the notice is withdrawn or the lawsuit is resolved.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.
A MOHCD spokesperson confirmed that The City’s “primary implementation challenge” is currently not having “enough attorneys to provide full-scope legal representation to every tenant facing eviction due to the lack of public interest attorneys to fill the available Tenant Right to Counsel (TRC) Positions.”
“This is a challenge in the larger legal aid sector and is exacerbated in San Francisco with our high cost of living,” the spokesperson said. “MOHCD does and will continue to work closely with the Mayor’s Budget Office regarding funding recommendations that help meet the needs of our community.”
Funding gaps are preventing the organizations from providing competitive wages, according to some attorneys already doing the work.
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.
That support should come in the form of increased wages, according to Helmer. With average salaries in the mid-$50,000 range, Helmer said that “there are not enough incentives for attorneys to work in nonprofits.”
“At ALRP, our full scope services include a lot more than the legal work. It’s trying to get clients connected to social services, mental health services, and oftentimes I’m chasing down clients or going with them to appointments. It’s not what I signed up to do as a lawyer,” said Helmer, who added that he long had concerns about The City’s ability to properly implement Prop. F.
“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.
In order to ramp up funding to hire and retain attorneys, Gold said that EDC and other organizations lobbied for an additional $1.9 million in the recent budget add-back process, but were awarded only $300,000. That amount could pay for a maximum of two new attorneys, she said.
“Nevertheless, the mayor added [addback] money in the amount of $1.5 million for special programs in the Western Addition,” said Gold. “There was money, but it’s not going to this.”
The service providers are also vying for additional funding under a 2020-2025 Request for Proposals issued by MOHCD for housing stabilization programs for a five year period.
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.”