Tim Lee, Tenants Legal Champion, Retires

by on November 2, 2017

Tim Lee, for over three decades a preeminent legal champion for California tenants, retires from the San Francisco Rent Board next month. Lee’s career reflects the evolution of tenants’ rights in California as well as efforts by courts, politicians and landlords to impede these rights.

Tim Lee has always avoided the limelight while making a huge difference in the lives of California tenants. It’s time to recognizle his enormous contributions to the tenant cause.

What is the short-list of Lee’s accomplishments? As the chief attorney for the Berkeley Rent Board in the 1980’s Lee likely saved rent control across the state by ensuring Berkeley’s rent control law survived legal challenge.

While at San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance (1980-86) and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC, 1990-1999), Lee stopped countless evictions. At THC (publisher of Beyond Chron) he obtained more injunctions stopping illegal SRO hotel conversions than anyone ever had or ever will.

Tim drafted language closing the huge loopholes bad court decisions opened in the Ellis Act’s land use protections (courts ruled that demolition controls were not “land use laws” under the Act).  Without Tim’s amendments (which the great tenant hero John Burton got enacted into law), speculators could freely use the Ellis Act to evict tenants, demolish their apartment building and then replace it with condominiums.

Just imagine how many buildings would have been demolished in San Francisco alone the past five years had that Ellis Act loophole not been closed.

Down In the Trenches

Tim Lee was always down in the trenches making sure that laws activists got passed were enforced. And that tenants’ new rights were protected.

These are no small things. It is easier to pass a law than to make sure it works as planned.

Getting a law passed is the fun part. Getting judges to enforce the law is not so fun.

Tim Lee spent his entire career amidst that not so fun part of the tenants’ movement. And he did so at a fraction of the salary an attorney of his caliber could have garnered from the private sector.

The Days at Legal Aid

Tim started as Director of SFNLAF’s Mission office in 1981. This was soon after the city’s housing crisis began and Tim’s office was filled with Latino tenants. Unfortunately, SFNLAF soon closed its neighborhood offices and consolidated staff at 870 Market. The only good side was that it brought Tim to the border of the Tenderloin. I got to know Tim in 1982 as he worked to make THC’s pro per eviction defense operation more effective (it became today’s Eviction Defense Collaborative).

After I became a lawyer in early December 1982 I regularly went to Tim’s office on Friday afternoons with a long list of questions. I noticed during those meetings that when I asked Tim a legal question he often would pull a book off his shelf, look inside, and then give me the answer. I was always so impressed with him knowing the answers to everything.

After some visits I realized that I could also find answers in these books. In fact, I had the same law books! I just did not know they contained the answers to many of my questions. I learned a lifelong lesson about doing my own research that has guided me ever since.

Tim was engaged in many of the high-profile tenant cases of the early 1980’s, including 1001 Montgomery Street in North Beach. When Tim was representing tenants in that Chinatown-North Beach community many assumed before meeting him that he was Chinese-American. After all, his last name was Lee ( Ed Lee was at the Asian Law Caucus in those days).

It was a lot easier to evict San Francisco tenants in those days. Renters really needed sharp attorneys like Tim Lee.

Off To Berkeley

Tim left SFNLAF in 1986 and spent the next four years trying to prevent Berkeley’s rent control law—and effectively all rent control in California—from being thrown out by the courts.

In the 1980’s landlord groups had a clear strategy for killing rent control: file a case against Berkeley. Judges hated Berkeley. They wanted to throw out its progressive laws even if this impacted the rest of the state.

Tim recognized Berkeley’s vulnerability. He pushed the elected Rent Board to adopt regulations to prevent rent control from being deemed an unconstitutional taking. This was not a popular move. In fact, Berkeley activists were furious with Tim. A tenant attorney was telling me about this terrible rent board official who was screwing over tenants and I said wait, Do you mean Tim Lee? When he said yes I realized what Tim was up against.

When it comes to standing by principle, Tim is very stubborn. He does not give into pressure from any side when he knows he is right. This meant that he refused to allow the Board to enact regulations that he thought were not in tenants’ best interests, activists demands notwithstanding.

Tim was not intimidated by attacks from tenant attorneys who did not understand the legal issues around rent control half as well as he did. Tim knew that saving rent control from judicial attack required a more moderate course.

As proved true in Berkeley and in the 35 years that I have known and often worked with Tim, his instincts on what was best for rent control’s future were correct. Thanks to Tim Lee and his fellow attorneys Berkeley’s rent control law survived. And rent control and just cause eviction laws still help tenants across the state.

Tim’s Berkeley battles took a toll. In 1990 he left to become a staff attorney at THC. He arrived as the city was passing a long overdue strengthening of his SRO anti-conversion law. THC got legal standing to sue violators and Tim was our chief enforcer.

SROs and the Ellis Act

In 1990 Tim began enforcing an SRO anti-conversion law that the city had long failed to  enforce. Finding violators was easy, as even 100% residential hotels openly rented to tourists.

But Tim soon found himself in a Berkeley rent control situation in that some violators of the law, like Adam Sparks, owner of the Pacific Bay Inn at 520 Jones, sought to challenge the underlying law as a “taking.” Although the SRO law had been upheld against such claims by a state Court of Appeal ruling in 1986, a flurry of new lawsuits in federal court commenced.

Sparks filed a case with federal judge John Vukasin,  who had no jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the judge publicly announced in dismissing the case that if he got a chance to throw out the city’s SRO anti-conversion law he would.

A new federal case then quickly reached Vukasin. He threw out the SRO law after saying that he should put me in jail because I had (accurately) told the Daily Journal newspaper he had prejudged the case. Tim worked feverishly with the City Attorney’s office to get Vukasin’s ruling reversed by the Ninth Circuit, and we prevailed. The court’s 3-0 vote restored the SRO law for good.

Vukasin was not the only judicial ideologue out to kill San Francisco’s HCO law. Tim had always had more faith in the legal system than I had but litigating on the SRO’s constitutionality through the 1990’s changed him. The flat out dishonesty of judges and their twisting facts and laws to benefit illegal hotel converters distressed Tim.

In one case we produced evidence that the owner was hiding illegal tourist rentals by using a double set of books. The judge said he did not find the secret, double set of books relevant. Judges who did not believe in protecting SROs did what they could to protect wrongdoers.

Tim’s last straw was when a court said that the Ellis Act preempted the city’s SRO law. This despite clear language in the Ellis Act saying laws regulating SRO’s were not preempted (In 2003 I worked with Mark Leno to get the city’s SRO’s excluded from the Ellis Act). Tim had seen enough. He left THC at the end of May 1999 for the San Francisco Rent Board, where he has worked ever since.

Prior to leaving THC, Tim’s injunctions saved roughly 1000 residential SRO hotel units from conversion to tourist use. Most of these units have remained residential to this day. That alone would be a career accomplishment for most attorneys.

The Rent Board has been a smooth running machine for decades. As senior legal advisor, Tim has joined other staff in ensuring the agency is trusted by tenants and landlords alike. That’s not easy to do in San Francisco.

San Francisco has been extraordinarily fortunate to have had Tim Lee help it chart the city’s often turbulent real estate waters. Tim and his Rent Board colleagues do not get enough credit for this and deserve our thanks.

Tim is likely most proud of mentoring so many tenant attorneys. This was true throughout his career.  Many who learned how to be effective attorneys from Tim are still serving tenants.

I count myself among them.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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