Tenants call on city officials to boost funding for eviction defense. At podium: Tyler McMillan, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative. (Bryan Goebel/KQED)
Tenants rights activists call on city officials to boost funding for eviction defense. At podium: Tyler Macmillan, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative. (Bryan Goebel/KQED)

Many tenants facing eviction often fight a losing battle because they can rarely afford attorneys, and there is a scarcity of city funding available to the network of nonprofits offering legal assistance, according to tenants rights activists.

At City Hall Wednesday, activists were joined by the city’s public defender and Supervisor David Campos at a rally calling on the city to ramp up funding for eviction defense.

“The sad fact is that many people being evicted should not be evicted and would not be evicted if they had an attorney,” said Ted Gullickson of the San Francisco Tenants Union.

At Campos’ request, the city’s budget and legislative analyst prepared a report on the number of unlawful detainers in 2012 and 2013 that sheds more light on evictions in the city. An unlawful detainer is the stage in an eviction process when a tenant is summoned to appear in court.

Tenant activists say evictions of every kind are up, but the actual numbers haven’t been clear, due in part to what landlords are required to report to the rent board.

The budget analyst’s report says there were 3,423 unlawful detainer lawsuits filed in 2013, and 3,695 filed in 2012. Of those, only 17 percent of tenants had legal representation in 2013, and nearly 13 percent had lawyers in 2012.

“I’ve seen more and more people being evicted from their homes, people becoming homeless and falling into poverty, and one of the reasons is because tenants, for the most part, are unrepresented,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

Adachi’s office is focused on criminal cases but he joined activists in calling on the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee to boost eviction defense funding in the next budget. The activists say attorneys who offer pro bono help are reluctant to take cases to trial. And without the threat of trial, settlements are often watered down. Increased city funding could be used to hire more attorneys to represent tenants.

“My housing was threatened, and if it had not been for legal assistance for the elderly, I would not have my home,” said artist and Hayes Valley neighborhood activist Madeline Behrens-Brigham. “I just encourage you to appreciate what attorneys can do for a tenant in trouble.”

The last line of defense

For more than two decades, a small nonprofit in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood, which receives the bulk of the city’s eviction defense funding, has been helping poor tenants fight evictions.

Founded by tenant rights activist Miguel Wooding, who died in 2011, the Eviction Defense Collaborative prides itself on providing a pro bono attorney to any tenant sued by a landlord. It also offers rental assistance.

“We do not deny our services to anybody who’s being sued for eviction, ” said Tyler Macmillan, who started as a staff attorney and became executive director after Wooding’s death.

It’s a myth that it takes a long time to evict a renter in San Francisco, said Macmillan. The process can actually be very swift.

“It can move as fast as three weeks, from you didn’t pay your rent to you are out on the streets,” Macmillan said. “States that we consider ourselves akin to have much longer notice periods, much longer procedures.”

After that three – or 30-day notice to pay or quit arrives on your door, panic and fear can set in. Many tenants don’t know where to turn, and some heed their landlord’s orders to leave without putting up a fight, thinking they don’t have a choice.

While there has been an uptick in the number of middle-income tenants seeking help at the EDC’s small drop-in clinic, the vast majority of clients are low-income residents, or those living 80 percent below the city’s median income of $80,000. Many are seniors, people with disabilities and single mothers. This year alone, the collaborative is expected to handle more than 2,000 cases.

Like other nonprofits that assist tenants, the EDC lacks resources to help everyone who walks through its doors. That’s why Macmillan, who was at the rally, wants the city to take action to help undo what he calls an unfair legal system.

“We think eviction defense should always be a high priority for San Francisco,”  Macmillan said. “It’s one of the smartest dollars you can spend as a city legislator in terms of what you save on homeless services, emergency services, the costs in hospital visits, or shelter visits.”

Hear more about the Eviction Defense Collaborative:

Note: A few years ago, the author received some counseling at the Eviction Defense Collaborative as a tenant.

  • Cynthia Zeiden

    This is the most fantastic organization in SF, I’m proud to be on the board. I lost my place in 2012, where I lived and worked, for over 15 years. EDC helped me through the very emotionally horrible process, I honestly don’t know what I would have done without their generous, expert help! I hope I can “give back” with my efforts on this board. Please do support EDC and share this message!

  • chuck

    As tenant advocate and mayor, Ed Lee
    noted that he could always delay an eviction for a year. There is no
    shortage of lawyers in SF and there are plenty of places to get
    counseling on legal matters for no charge. If the eviction lacks
    merit, there are lots of tenant landlords to defend against it just
    for the opportunity to sue for wrongful eviction. Distinguish between
    a financial need for assistance and a desire for free legal help to
    fight a proper just cause eviction to delay and run up costs for the
    purpose of obtaining free housing and coercing a meritless
    settlement.

    Landlord Beware ! The risk of losing an
    eviction case in SF can be financially devastating to a Landlord with
    the tenant or its lawyer ending up owning the building. Consequently,
    only the clearest cases are brought. Even then, they can be defensed
    based on the highly technical details of the eviction procedures. In
    the meantime, the housing provider loses income and pays significant
    attorney’s fees There is no risk to the tenant, the worst that can
    happen is that they are rightfully evicted. In the meantime they may
    live rent free and ultimately get paid off for vacating. Even after
    obtaining a judgment, there is further delay and the Sheriff may not
    act quickly to enforce the law.

    SF not only provides one sided laws
    favoring tenants but it provides lawyers to use the laws for delay.
    Apparently, the Eviction Defense Collaboative and other “nonprofits”
    are funded by the taxpayers [i.e. the property owners] to oppose the
    property owners. Apparently, EDC doesn’t distinguish between the
    needy and greedy or between the meritless and merited defenses. Their
    mission is to fight any landlord on any eviction and to take it to
    the jury. They represented the KQED author.

    If SF used its limited funds on direct
    social program to help the needy, it wouldn’t need to throw money
    down the rat hole of questionable programs like the one advocated by
    KQED to fight housing providers.

    It seems a misnomer to refer to KQED’s
    tenant advocacy as news.

Author

Bryan Goebel

Bryan Goebel is a reporter focused on transportation and housing issues. He was previously the editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and an anchor/editor at KCBS Radio. He's a lifelong Californian and has also worked at radio stations in Barstow, Redding and Sacramento.

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