Activists and tenants of 1049 Market Street hold signs as they stage a protest against the landlord's attempts to evict them from the building on March 8, 2016 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Activists and tenants of 1049 Market Street hold signs as they stage a protest against the landlord's attempts to evict them from the building on March 8, 2016 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Could Free Eviction Attorneys Help Stem San Francisco's Housing Crisis?

Could Free Eviction Attorneys Help Stem San Francisco's Housing Crisis?

3 min

You know how on TV, when someone gets arrested, the police tell them: “You have the right to an attorney, and if you can’t afford one, one will be provided for you."

Well, that right to an attorney applies only if the person is facing criminal changes. If you’re in eviction court -- which is civil -- there's no free lawyer.

The San Francisco Bar Association’s Gloria Chun says that’s not fair, because civil court cases can be just as life-altering as jail or prison time.

"When basic human needs like housing and child custody are at issue, it should not be an issue of whether or not you have the money to pay a private lawyer for one," says Chun, who directs the Bar's pro-bono legal services.

Chun's organization -- the Bar Association's Justice and Diversity Center -- helped more than 600 San Franciscans facing eviction last year. But that’s less than half of the 1,355 who received eviction notices. Typically, only about 10 percent of tenants have lawyers, and more than half of landlords do.

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A 2011 Harvard study found tenants who had lawyers throughout the entire eviction process did much better that those who only got limited legal advice.

If Proposition F passes on June 5, San Francisco would become the first city in the nation to guarantee the right to a lawyer for anyone in eviction court.

It would also be the first so-called “right to counsel” law approved by voters.

Proposition F would also continue a trend of support for eviction defense programs in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, among other jurisdictions across the country.

“Everyone is keeping a close eye on San Francisco,” says Chun.

New York City passed a similar law last year, but it has income limits. San Francisco’s law would cover everyone, regardless of income. The city’s finance office estimates it could cost up to $5.5 million a year.

The cost of that universal coverage is one of the primary criticisms of the measure. 

The San Francisco Apartment Association, which represents about 4,000 landlords, is Proposition F's main opponent. Spokesman Charley Goss says taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for lawyers to represent wealthy people, or those tenants who deserve to be evicted.

“People are being evicted for damaging the building... being a nuisance for other residents in the building," says Goss. "We don't believe that the city and taxpayers should fund eviction defense for those instances."

Proposition F’s advocates point out that having a lawyer doesn’t guarantee the tenant will win, only that they’ll have a fighting chance. And that could make a big difference in a rapidly gentrifying city.

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