From the Field: San Francisco Voters Guarantee Right to Counsel for All Tenants Facing Eviction

During the California state primary election on June 5, San Francisco residents voted to approve a ballot initiative for the city to guarantee legal representation to all tenants facing eviction. The measure, Proposition F, requires the city to establish, fund, and run a program to provide legal representation for all residential tenants in San Francisco, regardless of income. San Francisco joins New York City as the only two cities to pass right-to-counsel legislation.  

Following the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, all defendants are guaranteed the right to counsel in felony cases in the U.S., regardless of their ability to pay. The same right does not extend to civil court where housing and eviction cases are heard. As a result, 90% of landlords nationwide are represented by attorneys in housing court, but 90% of residents have no legal counsel. Without representation, tenants are significantly more likely to suffer an eviction. In San Francisco, where thousands of evictions occur annually, more than 80% of tenants face legal proceedings without representation. The advocates for Proposition F say the new legislation will significantly reduce the number of unfair evictions in the city.

In January 2018, SF Right to Counsel Committee, a coalition of tenant groups and advocates, submitted more than 21,000 petition signatures to send the ballot initiative to voters. Citing the City and County of San Francisco’s 2012 commitment to become the first “Right-to-Civil Counsel” city in the U.S., the advocates continued to gather support for the proposal leading up to the vote. Key organizations within the coalition include the San Francisco Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, Causa Justa::Just Cause, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, the California Nurses Association, and the United Educators of San Francisco.

With 55.6% of residents voting yes to Proposition F, San Francisco will now move towards providing universal access to legal representation for tenants in eviction cases. Previously the city provided basic services to all renters such as tenant’s rights counseling, and some tenants were able to find representation from attorneys at nonprofit organizations. Under the new program, all tenants facing eviction will be guaranteed legal representation, with the exception of cases where tenants live in the same unit as their landlord. Proposition F will also require landlords to notify tenants of their intent to evict before filing a lawsuit in the courts.

Some voters expressed concern about the costs and equity of funding legal representation for all tenants rather than creating a means-tested system where only residents with the lowest incomes would be eligible. The New York City right-to-counsel law, for example, is only applicable to individuals who have incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.

An impartial analysis conducted by the San Francisco Controller’s office found that while the costs of Proposition F will be significant—between $4.2 and $5.6 million annually—providing universal access to civil legal services may actually save the city money. Services that keep tenants in their homes help reduce or prevent other costs such as shelters and other homeless services, the office said. The ballot initiative did not specify how the program will be structured or funded, but it requires city officials to implement the program within one year.