Right to Civil Counsel

Preventing displacement has always been the goal of my housing advocacy work. The most effective way of preventing displacement is to make sure that people have access to their rights as tenants. The tenants movement in San Francisco has successfully won many tenant protections. Unfortunately, not all tenants have access to lawyers to defend them against unfair and illegal evictions.

San Francisco does not currently guarantee legal representation for tenants facing evictions, despite eviction increases every year since 2011. In California, 90% of tenants face eviction cases without lawyers, and tenants without representation are more likely to be evicted.

I propose we revive the 2012 Right to Civil Counsel program piloted by then Supervisor David Chiu. New York City recently adopted a right to civil counsel program, guaranteeing lawyers for low-income people in landlord-tenant, eviction, family court and other cases. San Francisco should do the same.

In 2012, then-Supervisor David Chiu proposed a one-year pilot that passed on a 9-2 vote, making San Francisco the first city to guarantee civil counsel in the country. That program relied on pro-bono representation from various law firms and had no direct funding for lawyers. A permanent right to civil counsel program would instead directly fund legal representation for low-income residents, similar to the new program in New York.

On August 11, 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a permanent right to civil counsel covering low-income tenants facing eviction. The program will cost $93 million a year (for a city of 8 million residents) by 2022 and provide free legal defense for those making up to 200% of the poverty level (about $50,000 for a four-person household) — some 400,000 New Yorkers a year ($232.50 per beneficiary). A similar program helped 40,000 New Yorkers stay in their homes in 2015 at a cost of $62 million ($1,550 per home saved). Based on the report of the 2012 San Francisco pilot, a local program could cost as little as $3.5 million.

Legal services programs are an incredibly efficient use of city resources, they actually save city governments money by preventing homelessness and the use of homeless services.

In Massachusetts, a 2014 report found that for every dollar spent on legal services, the state saved $2.69 on homeless services. In New York, a 2009 report found that the state saved $4 in homeless services per dollar spent on legal services. A 2014 report for the San Francisco pilot program found that around $1.1 million was saved in homeless services by providing representation to 600 tenants. Another Massachusetts report noted that “the connection between representation, homelessness prevention and cost savings should no longer be ignored.”

Right to civil counsel is temporarily guaranteed for a number of counties in California under the Shriver Act, which approved pilot programs throughout the state. In San Francisco, civil counsel is currently guaranteed for child custody cases under the act, but housing, welfare, domestic violence, and other cases are not covered.  Covering all these types of cases would be great, and preventing illegal low-income tenant evictions is a must!

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