Proposed Tenderloin Housing Clinic Cut Amounts to Attack on Renters, Immigrants

by Casey Mills on April 13, 2005

For the past twenty years, renters in San Francisco knew that if they faced wrongful eviction, they could turn to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) for free legal help. Yet now, Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to launch another salvo at low-income and working class people by cutting in half funding for this aid. Should this proposed cut become a reality, vulnerable tenants throughout San Francisco, including monolingual Spanish speakers, will suffer.

THC’s legal practices operate on a shoestring budget, receiving a mere $87,500 in grant funding. The entirety of this money comes from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which local governments can allocate to whomever they desire.

For more than twenty years, San Francisco lawmakers did not cut funding to THC, due to consistently positive reports on the law firm’s performance. Yet now, seemingly without reason, Newsom wants to cut CDBG grant to THC almost in half, to $50,000. Newsom proposed this cut at the same time he’s increasing spending on administration of the grant by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The odd timing has some tenant advocates wondering if the cut might be politically motivated. They cite Newsom’s status as a long-time proponent of increasing home ownership in San Francisco, particularly through tenancies-in-common (TIC’s). TICs allow several parties to purchase a home together and then convert it into individual condominiums. Unfortunately, the eviction of long-time tenants who formerly occupied the building often make TICs possible.

“It’s not a surprising that Newsom is going after funding for tenants rights and funding for eviction defense, since he has been a long time proponent of condo conversions and evictions for condo conversions,” said Ted Gullickson of the San Francisco Tenant’s Union.

THC provides comprehensive tenants’ rights legal aid to low-income people in the Tenderloin and South of Market. But it’s perhaps best known for its work surrounding three important, specific issues facing tenants in San Francisco – stopping Ellis Act evictions, enforcing the Hotel Conversion Ordinance, and eviction-defense legal aid to monolingual Spanish speakers.

Ellis Act evictions, despite being virtually ignored by the city’s mainstream media, present the most pointed attacks on renters. Due to a little-known provision in state law, buyers can evict an entire building full of tenants if they claim to then take the building of the rental market. Speculators often employ the act and quickly resell the building to TIC buyers, who then convert the building into condominiums.

Because of the deep level of involvement and high level of cost required of law firms to get involved in Ellis Act evictions, few if any take such cases. This explains THC’s role as almost the sole provider of legal defense against Ellis Act evictions, a role that would be severely curtailed should Newsom’s cut be enacted.

The Hotel Conversion Ordinance prevents the renting of Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) rooms on a day-by-day basis. Without the ordinance, speculators could potentially change entire SRO hotels into tourist hotels, as they recently attempted to do at the Chronicle Hotel.

As the sole enforcer of the ordinance in San Francisco, THC fought the Chronicle’s attempt to convert their hotel, and won. The suit saved 156 SRO units, a significant chunk of the city’s low-income housing stock. Had these units been removed from the rental market, it would have required millions to build another hotel of equal size to bring them back.

THC also provides one of the only sources of eviction defense legal aid for monolingual Spanish speakers. THC Attorney Raquel Fox claims that, similar to Ellis Act defense, the prohibitive high level of involvement and cost keeps most law firms from doing what she does.

“We fulfill a role that no one else in this city does,” said Fox. “There’s no one else that picks up cases from the Mission the way that I do. This is an underprivileged and disenfranchised group that will be completely annihilated when they get to court without representation.”

Fox also points out that THC, despite its name, does not just serve the Tenderloin.

“We take cases citywide,” she said. “We reach everyone. The want to clear this city of renters – it’s ugly. They should be increasing our funding, not cutting it.”

The Budget and Finance Committee will review the cuts tomorrow at their weekly meeting.

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