California last night held important primary elections for governor and several congressional seats. Amid all the national coverage, you may have missed the results of a local ballot measure in the state that Seattle officials could take a hint from.
Voters elected to make San Francisco the latest city to create a right to legal representation for tenants facing eviction. More radically, it became the first city to guarantee the right to a lawyer regardless of a tenant's income. The measure—Measure F—was passing 56-44 percent with 99 percent of precincts counted.
Unlike in criminal cases, tenants facing eviction are not constitutionally guaranteed legal representation. Tenant advocates say this creates a steep imbalance that favors landlords. That has led cities across the country to consider providing tenants with the right to an attorney. Last year, New York became the first city to pass a right to counsel, but that program includes income requirements in order to serve lower-income tenants.
Similarly, San Francisco already has a rare right to civil counsel program, but not all tenants are covered. The fact that Measure F included no means test makes it unique and subjected it to controversy.
Opponents argued wealthy tenants could take advantage of the program. City politicians tried to circumvent the measure. Last year, two San Francisco city supervisors offered their own plan to create a right to counsel for tenants through the legislative process. Tenant advocates balked at their proposed eligibility limits and pushed forward with the ballot measure anyway.
San Francisco tenant advocates and that city's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America campaigned for the measure. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, supporters raised more than $190,000 while opponents including the San Francisco Apartment Association did not run an active campaign.
The initiative passed Tuesday did not include details about how a right-to-counsel program will be structured or funded. It gives city officials a year to create the program.
According to the city controller, providing lawyers for all tenants facing eviction could cost between $4.2 and $5.6 million a year, with those costs likely to grow in the future. San Francisco currently spends about $4.4 million a year on tenant counseling, outreach, and other services available to all tenants. Legal representation is available only to certain tenants based on criteria including income and costs about $2 million per year, according to the controller.
In court, having a lawyer can mean the difference between getting evicted or holding on to your home. In New York, a limited effort to provide tenants with legal representation decreased their chances of getting evicted by 77 percent.
Supporters of a right to counsel also argue it can save cities money. The City of New York estimated that while providing legal representation for some tenants facing eviction would cost between $173 million and $276 million a year, it could also save $143 million per year in homeless shelter costs.
Here in Seattle, tenants facing eviction do not have a legal right to a lawyer. Efforts toward change have been small.
Last year, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold helped create a pilot program to get low-income incarcerated people civil representation to help them avoid "collateral consequences" like eviction. Otherwise, tenants are most often directed to the Housing Justice Project. HJP operates two clinics in Seattle and Kent with three paid lawyers and 70 to 80 volunteers handling nearly 2,000 eviction cases per year.
About half of HJP's clients live in Seattle. According to HJP's managing attorney, some smaller regional cities contribute funding to the organization's $350,000 budget. Seattle does not.