Meet the eviction defenders helping to keep tenants at home

Why We Wrote This

What does fair look like in the hottest housing markets? That’s something many cities are grappling with, perhaps none more than San Francisco.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Hundreds of protesters rally at San Francisco’s City Hall in 2015 for a temporary halt to evictions in a popular neighborhood where workers in the booming technology sector are accused of pushing out longtime tenants.

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After her building sold to new landlords, Nicole Delisi came home one day to find a 60-day eviction notice, an increasing occurrence in San Francisco’s red-hot housing market.

Buffeted by gentrification and rising rents, the city has averaged more than 1,700 reported eviction notices a year since 2009. In 80% to 90% of those cases, renters lack legal representation. Landlords, however, retain lawyers in 90% of eviction cases nationwide.

This month the city launched Tenant Right to Counsel, a $5.8 million initiative that guarantees legal counsel to all renters in eviction cases irrespective of their income level.

“Our mission is to walk with every tenant who is at risk of eviction,” says Martina Cucullu Lim of the Eviction Defense Collaborative.

The city’s willingness to provide legal counsel to low-income renters targeted by wrongful evictions “makes complete sense,” says Charley Goss of the San Francisco Apartment Association. But he questions the fiscal wisdom of free representation for higher-income residents.

In Ms. Delisi’s case, a lawyer agreed to work with the elementary school teacher on contingency, and a jury found the property owners violated the rent ordinance and awarded her $462,000. “Having a lawyer gives you a sense of hope in a hopeless situation,” she says. “I’m not sure how things would have turned out otherwise.”

A young man sits at a small table inside the front door of a four-story building less than two blocks from the headquarters of Twitter, Square, and Uber. Without looking up from his laptop, he tells visitors “fourth floor” before they can ask. He knows that almost all of them seek help from above, which in this case means the Eviction Defense Collaborative.

The EDC, as the San Francisco nonprofit is known, provides legal aid to tenants facing eviction, and the three dozen chairs in its waiting area upstairs attest to the acute need for services. This month, the demand has begun to climb with the launch of Tenant Right to Counsel, a two-year, $5.8 million program that ensures renters receive legal representation in eviction cases irrespective of their income level.

The city created and funded the program to fulfill the mandate of a ballot initiative – Proposition F, or the No Eviction Without Representation Act – that voters approved last year. The measure’s passage made San Francisco the second U.S. city after New York to offer renters free legal counsel to fight eviction orders, and the first with universal access to that assistance.

The program marks the latest effort to prevent tenants from losing their homes in a city where gentrification and rising rents propelled by Silicon Valley’s tech boom have reduced low- and middle-income renters to endangered species status. San Francisco has averaged more than 1,700 reported eviction notices a year since 2009, and an estimated 80% to 90% of renters lack a lawyer in such cases.

“The court system can be daunting, and for most tenants, the eviction process is completely unknown to them,” says Martina Cucullu Lim, the EDC’s executive director. “So our mission is to walk with every tenant who is at risk of eviction so they don’t feel that they’re going through it alone.”

Earlier this year, city officials in Newark, New Jersey, allocated funding to establish a right to counsel program. As similar proposals percolate in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and other cities, the discussions reflect a reconsideration of the balance – and tension – between landlord and tenant rights amid the country’s widening affordable housing gap.

San Francisco’s initiative links together a constellation of 11 legal aid groups that handle tenant-landlord disputes, including the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, Asian Law Caucus, and Legal Assistance to the Elderly. The public funding will support nearly 50 lawyers working on eviction cases, and the EDC will weigh assorted factors – age, ethnicity, and neighborhood, among others – to pair clients with the agency best suited to respond to their plight.

Some 3 million tenants in California meet the federal definition of “rent-burdened,” spending at least 30% of their income on rent, as the state copes with a housing shortage of 3.5 million units and the country’s largest homeless population. In San Francisco, where renters account for almost two-thirds of the city’s more than 880,000 residents, tenant advocates regard guaranteed legal counsel as one antidote to displacement.

“Eviction is not just about losing your home,” says Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, a grassroots group that joined with the San Francisco Tenants Union in leading the push for Proposition F. “It’s about losing your community, your social network, your doctor, possibly your job. It’s about losing stability.”

“You feel helpless”

Nicole Delisi returned home from work on a spring day four years ago to see a 60-day eviction order on her front door. Panic, despair, and tears arrived all at once.

The elementary school teacher believed she had claimed her slice of San Francisco paradise months earlier when she moved into a one-bedroom unit in a fourplex. Her new home resembled a palace compared with the shoebox studio where she had lived, offering the avid swimmer a kitchen-window view of the Pacific Ocean and easy access to the water.

Ms. Delisi’s problems began after the landlord who leased to her for $1,450 a month sold the building. At the time, the average cost of one-bedroom units in the city had reached $3,100.

Within weeks, court records show, the new owners, a husband and wife, evicted one tenant on the grounds that they intended to occupy his unit. Soon afterward, they served notice on Ms. Delisi, claiming that a relative would move into her apartment.

San Francisco allows so-called owner and relative move-in evictions as long as landlords follow conditions laid out by the city’s rent ordinance. One proviso requires landlords and their relatives to occupy units vacated through move-in evictions for the ensuing 36 months.

Ms. Delisi knew that after another tenant gave voluntary notice to move out, the owners increased that unit’s rent to market rate. She also had observed that the couple seldom stayed in the apartment of the renter they had kicked out.

But unaware of the city’s eviction guidelines or her rights as a tenant, she had little idea where to bring her suspicions. “When you get an eviction notice, you don’t know what resources or advocates are out there,” she says. “You feel helpless.”

The right to counsel program seeks to alleviate that kind of confusion with education and outreach campaigns designed to funnel renters toward the EDC. Beyond legal resources, the collaborative can provide or help obtain emergency rental assistance, averting a tenant’s eviction and the potential secondary effects related to losing a home.

Numerous studies link eviction to a decline in physical and mental health and higher rates of homelessness and unemployment among adults, and lower academic performance among children. The vulnerability runs highest for low-income renters who rely on housing vouchers, explains Lisa Kim, a supervising attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, one of the groups involved in the city’s program.

“We want to keep our clients in San Francisco because it can be so difficult to find another unit that accepts a Section 8 subsidy,” she says. “Having to leave that unit often means our clients have to move way outside the San Francisco Bay Area or even the state. The impact is enormous for them.”

“Landlords need renters”

San Francisco falls outside the list of 100 large U.S. cities with the highest eviction rates. Charley Goss, manager of government affairs for the San Francisco Apartment Association, a trade group representing landlords, mentions that statistic in asserting the city already had adequate protections for tenants before Proposition F passed.

The city’s willingness to provide legal counsel to low-income renters targeted by wrongful evictions “makes complete sense,” Mr. Goss says. But he questions the fiscal wisdom of free representation for higher-income residents and argues that the city should instead devote more funding to rental assistance and tenant education programs.

“Nobody’s in the business of doing evictions. Landlords need renters,” he says. “So the evictions that take place are legitimate evictions for legitimate causes, and we don’t feel it’s the city’s job to intervene in those cases.”

Dan Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, raises similar concerns as the country’s second-largest city prepares to launch a right to counsel program, spurred on by San Francisco’s example.

Failure to pay rent ranks as the most common reason for evictions. “So how long are you as a property owner supposed to let someone live in [your] unit for free while you still have your own bills to pay?” Mr. Yukelson asks. He adds that landlords must consider the rights of other tenants when a renter poses a persistent nuisance.

“If you have someone creating a disturbance on your property, what about the rest of the residents? It can take so long to evict a problem tenant that they decide to move out.”

Research suggests that landlords in large metro areas underreport the number of evictions that occur by as much as half. Meanwhile, in cities with full-fledged or pilot programs that provide legal counsel to tenants, studies show that renters with representation remain in their homes at twice the rate of those without a lawyer. In New York, evictions have dropped by more than a fourth since 2013 as more tenants receive legal aid.

Landlords retain lawyers in 90% of eviction cases nationwide. Cary Gold, director of litigation and policy for the EDC, describes San Francisco’s right to counsel program as an attempt to narrow the disparity in legal assistance – and to deter property owners from booting renters under false pretenses.

“It’s now going to cost landlords to pursue those bogus evictions, so we hope they won’t start that process in the first place,” Ms. Gold says. She casts the program’s purpose as less about slowing gentrification than about advocating for fairness. “Poor people have already been forced out of the city – that ship has sailed. At this point, it’s a matter of trying to keep more people and more families in their homes.”

The case of Ms. Delisi illustrates how a lawyer can alter a renter’s fate. After contacting the city’s tenants union for guidance, she started calling and emailing legal aid groups and private lawyers. Mark Hooshmand, who specializes in eviction disputes, accepted her case on contingency – the only way she could afford to hire an attorney on her teacher’s salary.

Mr. Hooshmand sued the landlords on Ms. Delisi’s behalf, and a jury awarded her $462,000 after finding that the property owners violated the city’s rent ordinance, according to court records. “Having a lawyer gives you a sense of hope in a hopeless situation,” she says. “I’m not sure how things would have turned out otherwise.”

Yet closure remains elusive. The landlords have appealed the verdict, and Ms. Delisi has moved across the San Francisco Bay to Alameda, where she pays $550 more a month for an apartment two-thirds the size of her old unit. She had the option of staying in her San Francisco home. But fear of retaliation by the landlords, coupled with the trauma of fighting the eviction, has soured her on the city she once loved.

“I had lived there for 15 years, and what happened was so abrupt and so harsh and so painful. And because the same sort of thing has happened to so many people there, it’s not the same San Francisco anymore,” she says. “I don’t think I could ever go back.”

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