Sheehy, Breed try to pre-empt (or copy?) tenant ballot measure

A bit of confusion around press conference announcing plan to pay for lawyers for tenants facing eviction

Supervisors Jeff Sheehy and London Breed held a press conference this morning to announce legislation that would provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction – a clear response to a ballot measure that was filed less than two weeks ago.

That came a day after Sheehy announced the legislation at a D8 candidate debate.

Sups. London Breed and Jeff Sheehy announce legislation — but they don’t seem to be entirely clear what it will actually do

But at this point, the press release, the statements at the press conference, and Sheehy’s comments at the debate are very different from the proposed legislation that has been sent to the city attorney. The sponsors aren’t on the same page. So it’s not clear what will emerge from the legislative process.

The plan was thrown together pretty quickly, after it became clear that the ballot measure had strong support in the city. Breed said today that an initiative was useless because it would be better to do the work at the board.

The two supervisors, later joined by Assemblymember David Chiu, announced they were planning “to protect tenants from fraudulent evictions through the provision of legal counsel for no-fault eviction cases.”

Breed told reporters that the right to counsel would be determined in part by a sort of means testing – people who made more than 60 percent of area median income might not be eligible.

Most evictions in San Francisco are not “no-fault” evictions. Many landlords create fake causes – things like “breach of lease,” which can be as minor as leaving a bicycle in the hall or hanging laundry out a window.

So according to the press release, those would not be covered in the new law.

Sheehy said at the debate that his measure wouldn’t provide counsel to tenants of nonprofit or public housing, and he told me after the press conference that since the city is subsidizing that housing, the taxpayers would by footing the bill for both sides in the legal process. Better, he suggested, to mandate mediation.

(The taxpayers, of course, pay for both sides in many criminal cases, since the district attorney and public defender both are funded by the city.)

But at the press conference, Breed said the bill would cover all tenants, including residents of buildings owned by nonprofits or public housing.

But a copy of the proposed legislation provided by Sheehy’s office late in the day is very different: It would apply to all tenants, with no means testing. It would provide full-scope representation starting no less than 30 days after a tenant gets an eviction notice.

And it would require the board to fund the program – at a cost Sheehy estimated at a little less than $4 million a year.

It’s clear that providing legal counsel to tenants facing eviction is way cheaper than providing services for people who have become homeless because of evictions. And it’s radically less expensive than building new housing.

But the politics of this are a little weird. Sheehy and Breed never spoke to anyone in the tenant community before introducing their bill (and although the original press release said “tenant advocates” would be at the press conference, only the three politicians were present.)

When I asked Breed about that, she said that the tenant groups had never contacted her or the other supes before launching their initiative.

Jon Golinger, who is running the initiative campaign, told me that the measure was still “full speed ahead.” He said that it’s still not clear what the actual legislation will say – and what might emerge from this Board of Supes and this mayor.

It’s pretty obvious that the event today was a political move; Sheehy is after all facing a challenge in June from Rafael Mandelman. The whole event was pulled together so quickly that even the participants weren’t on the same page.

Sheehy said he would like to get this done quickly, so it can be part of next year’s budget. But that assumes this board will pass the measure without watering it down so much that it will become worthless.

In which case, the initative is still headed for the June ballot.

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