By Tyler Macmillan
OPINION Every year, around 3,500 formal eviction lawsuits are filed against residential tenants in San Francisco Superior Court. Contrary to popular belief, the eviction lawsuit — known as an “unlawful detainer” — is one of the fastest moving cases in the entire civil system. While we’ve all heard anecdotes about how it can take years to remove San Francisco tenants from their homes, tenants sued for eviction experience civil litigation at warp speed.
More than a third of those sued for eviction miss the five-day window the law provides to file a response with the court. In 2013, 1,294 of the tenant households that were sued for eviction in the city missed that deadline to respond. The strong tenant protections found in San Francisco’s Rent Ordinance and California law don’t mean much to those who miss their five-day deadline: Sheriff’s deputies clear the property just a few weeks after the case is filed if you don’t respond. So much for due process.
Securing tenants due process rights in San Francisco has been our job at the Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC) since 1996. At our drop-in legal clinic, our team of attorneys and volunteers assist over 94 percent of all tenants who respond to their eviction lawsuit in San Francisco each year. Although our office is open Monday through Friday to help tenants respond to the lawsuit on time, nine out of 10 tenants sued for eviction represent themselves for the duration of their case. Over 90 percent of landlords can afford to hire expert, aggressive attorneys to evict their tenants — very few tenants can afford to hire a private attorney to defend their homes.
Unsurprisingly, tenants agree to move out in most eviction lawsuits — around four out of five tenants sued for eviction will settle the case with an agreement to leave their homes. And who could blame them? The choice of conducting a jury trial against a licensed attorney is not an appealing — or realistic — choice for a self-represented tenant. Without an attorney to stand up and fight for your rights at trial, those rights remain the empty, meaningless promises of the pay-to-play American legal system.
Of course, tenants who get represented by attorneys can win eviction cases — exactly the reason we started our Trial Project at EDC last year. Since the Trial Project launched, EDC staff attorneys have represented a small percentage of tenants facing the prospect of a jury trial on their own. Through the hard work of EDC staff attorneys (who on average earn less than $50,000 a year), the Trial Project enjoyed another jury trial victory in May. While very few eviction cases reach a verdict, this was EDC’s third trial victory in the past year.
This particular jury verdict saved the home of a Spanish-speaking couple who has lived in the Mission District for the past 19 years. They have young children who attend the local public schools and attend church in the neighborhood. This family has limited income and would certainly have had to leave of San Francisco if it was evicted, uprooting the children and leaving behind its community.
The landlord had accused the family of not paying the rent — even though the family had repeatedly tried to pay. The jury agreed with the tenant, finding that the conditions on the property were so bad that the landlord wasn’t entitled to the rent being demanded. The jury actually followed the law, and reduced the tenants’ rent.
The heroes in this case are the tenants — their courage in standing up for their home and their civil rights is inspiring, and should be a lesson to tenants across the city. We need tenants in San Francisco to push back against this current wave of displacement and we’re here to help.
Tyler Macmillan is a tenants’ rights attorney and the executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, a nonprofit legal services clinic in the Tenderloin. Any tenant sued for eviction can drop into EDC at 995 Market St., #1200 (at Sixth Street) Mon-Fri, 9:30-11:30am and 1-3pm.