Jeff Adachi

San Francisco to provide right to counsel for tenants facing eviction


OPINION San Francisco is the second most unequal city in the nation. Working and middle-income people and families are being forced to flee the city they love. Between 2010 and 2013, Ellis Act evictions alone increased by 170 percent.

In 2013, a total of 3,662 San Franciscans were served with eviction notices. Over 1,000 of these tenants went to court without lawyers. According to court statistics, 90 percent of landlords hire attorneys, while only 10 percent of tenants have a lawyer. This inequity has made it more difficult for tenants to adequately assert their rights.

To level the playing field, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee just designated $1 million to fund 10 nonprofit housing attorneys to perform full scope legal services for any tenant facing eviction in San Francisco. We teamed up with tenant rights organizers and attorneys to fight for this budget allocation in order to address San Francisco’s affordability crisis. This funding will ensure that all San Franciscans facing eviction will receive legal assistance if they need it.

Crucial to ensuring economic diversity in this city is protecting our rent-controlled housing stock. Every time a tenant is evicted from his or her apartment, we lose another unit of price-controlled housing that is safe from the current astronomical market rental and sale prices. The board has passed local legislation that helps tenants remain in the city after an eviction, including Sup. Campos’ legislation increasing relocation assistance amounts after an Ellis Act eviction.

However, only the state Legislature has the power to change the law in a manner that would make a large impact on the frequency of evictions. Sadly, last week, Sen. Mark Leno’s bill that would have curbed Ellis Act evictions died in the Assembly Housing Committee. Leno said he will not further pursue the bill this year. Therefore, we must continue to act locally to deal with our housing crisis.

Legal representation for tenants is a crucial part of the fight against displacement. Several academic studies have shown that tenants are five to 10 times more likely to stay in their homes after receiving an eviction notice if they are represented by an attorney throughout the eviction process. Furthermore, having an attorney protects the tenants against abusive practices by landlords.

Tenant advocates report that illegal harassment by landlords is on the rise in an effort to force out tenants without having to resort to the formal eviction process. It is common practice for landlords to attempt to “buy out” tenants by offering a monetary sum to vacate a unit outside of the legal process. Vulnerable tenants, including immigrants and tenants who live in Section 8 housing, are often forced out of their units because they do not understand or assert their rights. Even if the action results in the tenants leaving, an attorney can help tenants avoid having an eviction on their record, which makes it much more difficult for the tenants to rent again.

We are fortunate to have 14 excellent nonprofit organizations in San Francisco that provide no- or low-cost legal services to tenants. However, these organizations have been woefully underfunded and do not have sufficient staff to address this housing crisis. The budget allocation of $1 million to fund 10 additional tenant attorneys will have a profound impact on San Francisco’s housing crisis. It will also make San Francisco one of the first cities in the country to provide a right to legal assistance to tenants facing eviction. Just as the Constitution allows an attorney for a person accused of a crime, a person threatened with the loss of his or her home should have legal assistance. San Francisco can and should lead the way when it comes to providing legal assistance to those tenants who need it.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Supervisor David Campos are elected officials in San Francisco.

Opinion: Let reporters into prisons


As a young public defender, I represented an innocent man who was convicted of

John Tennison was serving a sentence of 25 years to life when, in 1997, I
contacted a 20/20 news producer, who agreed to feature the case.

Tennison had already lost seven years of his freedom. A national broadcast
exposing concealed evidence, perjury and misconduct by police and prosecutors in
the case could reverse his fate and reunite him with his family.

But when prison officials denied the television crew an interview with my
client, producers were forced to withdraw. No interview meant no story.
Tennison was eventually exonerated, but it took 14 years. Fortunately, a
reporter from the SF Bay Guardian named Adam Clay Thompson accompanied me during
a prison interview as my paralegal and was able to meet and interview Tennison.
He wrote a cover story that exposed the injustice of Tennison’s case and
started the ball rolling towards his eventual exoneration. I am convinced that
if media access were granted in this case, it would have restored his freedom
years earlier.
For the past 15 years, California’s prisons have operated in a virtual media
blackout. With the flick of his pen, Governor Jerry Brown has the opportunity to
turn on the light.
Now on his desk is AB 1270, also known as the Prison Media Access Bill. The
bill, authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, would restore the press’ ability to
conduct pre-arranged, face-to-face interviews with specific prison inmates.
Currently, reporters may interview inmates who are hand-picked by prison
officials. They are not allowed follow-up contact, making it impossible to know
whether a prisoner has suffered retaliation as a result of the interview.
It wasn’t always this way. During Brown’s first stint as governor, the press was
free to fulfill its watchdog role in California prisons.
In 1996, prison officials clamped down on press access under the guise of
discouraging tabloid media from making celebrities of notorious killers. In the
process, it also made it far harder to expose systematic abuse, fiscal
mismanagement and unsafe conditions for guards and inmates alike.
It was under this information shut-out that inhumane conditions were allowed to
fester to the point that the Supreme Court intervened in 2011, ordering the
release of 46,000 inmates.
It was nearly a century ago that US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote
that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It remains no less true today.

Government accountability is impossible without media access. The 2011-2012

state budget allocates $9.2 billion in taxpayer money to the CaliforniaDepartment of Corrections and
Rehabilitation, yet public information is limited by CDCR’s current restrictive
media policies.

Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going. Like John Tennison,
innocent men and women languishing in California’s prisons deserve to tell their

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s public defender.

Why I’m pushing pension reform


OPINION Some have questioned why I, as a long-time supporter of progressive policies and programs, chose to venture into the uncharted waters of pension reform. The answer is simple: I believe in the value of government, particularly in providing a safety net for the poor and those who need help. When the government no longer has the ability to provide these services, everyone suffers.

I became aware of San Francisco’s pension problem through advocating for my department’s budget. Beginning in 2005, year after year, I saw pension and benefits costs rise, while services and programs were cut or eliminated. Funding for education, parks, street repair, AIDS, senior and after-school youth programs, mental health clinics, drug treatment programs and other basic services have evaporated while pension costs continue to escalate. Today, we spend $1 out of every $7 on pension and benefit costs for city employees; in five years, it will be one out of every $4.

In the next 12 months, pension costs are projected to increase by nearly $100 million more than last year. Think of the number of jobs, programs, and services that will have to be cut to pay this debt. These costs come at a time when the city faces a $360 million budget deficit.

Some may argue that taxes should be raised to pay for these costs. Yet progressives have shied away from tax measures in these difficult economic times. Even if there is a planned tax measure this November, it would have to raise $300 million — 10 times what last November’s millionaire real estate transfer tax raised — over the next three years to keep pace with pension costs.

While conservatives have seized on rising pension and benefit costs as a vehicle to push their anti-union agenda, we cannot cede the responsibility for addressing this fiscal challenge to the right. We must protect collective bargaining for workers, while presenting a solution that strikes an appropriate balance between our obligations to retired workers and the need for continued city services.

Shortly, I will be introducing a new ballot initiative that will help reduce costs while ensuring that the pension and health benefit system is there for future generations of workers. And the initiative will do so in a manner that is fair and equitable. The highest-earning workers, including elected officials, will be asked to contribute more while the lowest-earning workers will be entirely exempt, a lesson learned from the last pension reform effort. The reforms will help eliminate the abuses of the pension system that benefit a few workers at the expense of others. Residents, elected officials, city employees, and labor leaders are invited to review the proposals at and provide any comments or ideas.

The fact that pension reform is one critical component of a more comprehensive solution that may include changes to our tax policy, generation of other revenue, and even state or federal cooperation, is no reason to excuse supporting real reform.

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s public defender.

Prop. B will save healthcare


By Jeff Adachi and Jim Illig

Editors note: Last week we ran an op-ed by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano opposing Proposition B. Public Defender Jeff Adachi asked for space to respond. His position follows.

OPINION San Francisco prides itself on the excellent health care services it provides to its residents. Per capita, San Francisco provides better quality healthcare to its poorest and most vulnerable residents than any other city in our state. Our city’s Healthy San Francisco program, which provides low- cost access to healthcare for all uninsured residents, has been heralded as a model program nationwide.

But the healthcare system that serves the city’s employees is teetering on the brink of insolvency. This year, the city will spend $456 million for healthcare costs for 26,000 city employees, and 28,000 retirees and their 47,000 dependents. According to the Controller’s Office, the city’s health system has an unfunded liability of $4 billion — meaning that it has made $4 billion in promised coverage to city employees and their dependents that it doesn’t have the money to pay for.

That’s a major reason why two city departments that serve the poorest residents, the Public Defender and Public Health, must cut millions of dollars of essential services each year, to save the city’s General Fund for growing employee healthcare and pension costs.

Currently most city employees contribute nothing for their own healthcare. Taxpayers subsidize the entire cost, which runs between $2,890 and $5,560 per year for each employee. Proposition B would change this by requiring that an employee insured under the basic health plan pay just $96 a year ($8 a month) for their healthcare. Under Prop. B, city employees would still pay 22 times less than private sector employees, who pay an average of $2,185 per year for their health insurance.

City employees with dependents currently pay $8 a month. Under Prop. B, they would pay $2,988 per year. Private sector employees with dependents pay an average of $7,026 a year. And this doesn’t include the 31 percent of San Franciscans who do not receive employer-paid health care costs and pay the entire cost themselves.

Opponents of Prop. B claim that city workers cannot afford to pay the health benefits if Prop B. passes. Their argument ignores the fact that the average San Francisco city employee earns $93,000 a year in salary alone, excluding benefits, while the average private sector salary is $46,000.

They also argue that “a single mother will be forced to pay up to $5,600 per year for her child’s health care — in addition to the $8,154 she already pays.”

First, this is not true. A city employee with two dependents only pays a total of $448 a month for full health coverage. Only if the city employee chooses the most expensive health plan, which costs $31,645, would the employee have to pay $19,561 a year under Prop. B instead of the $16,922, which he or she now pays.

Even with contributions required by Prop. B, city employees will receive a benefit package that is unparalleled in the private sector. Even more important, the city’s healthcare fund will be made more sustainable by ensuring that the funding for the city’s healthcare program doesn’t run dry when the city can no longer afford to pay these costs.

According to the Controller’s ballot statement, Prop. B would save the city $121 million annually. Some of these funds could be used to prevent the devastating cuts to the city’s mental health, substance abuse, and other community health programs for poverty-stricken adults and children who do not have healthcare coverage.

Voting yes on Prop. B is an antidote to continuing cuts to healthcare for the poorest San Franciscans. *

Jeff Adachi is a proponent of Proposition B and the city’s public defender. Jim Illig is the president of the San Francisco Health Commission.

Progressives should care about pension reform


OPINION In today’s failing economy, with double-digit unemployment and huge government deficits, progressives have a strong interest in ensuring that San Francisco’s pension system remains viable.

After years of working and contributing a percentage of their income to a pension fund, city employees receive a guaranteed annual pension based on an employee’s years of service and his or her pay level at retirement. In the private sector, most employees participate in a 401(k)-type of retirement plan, in which the pension is based on the amount contributed to the fund.

Under the city charter, the city is only required to pay into the pension fund when its liabilities exceed its income. When the fund loses money, as it has in recent years, the city is required to make up the difference.

In 2005, investments losses brought the fund below the break-even mark, requiring the city to pay $175 million in retiree pension and health premiums. Today, that number has grown to $525 million — an increase of 200 percent. Two years from now, in 2013, the amount will grow to $675 million, eclipsing what it costs to run San Francisco General Hospital for one year.

While headlines reporting pensioners who receive $100,000 or more raise the public’s ire, most retired city workers receive modest pensions. Still, there are abuses to the pension system that must be eliminated. A recent civil grand jury report found that some police and firefighters engage in pension “spiking” by promoting employees in their last year of service to increase the amount of their pensions. That practice has cost the city $132 million.

The question of how to address the city’s growing pension liability is now before the Board of Supervisors. A proposed charter amendment would change the contribution levels for police and fire employees hired after July 2010 from 7.5 percent to 9 percent and base pensions on the last three years of the employee’s salary to reduce pension spiking.

Some argue that the measure unfairly targets labor and city workers by eliminating pension formulas that have been used for decades. But with the city’s $522 million budget deficit, if San Francisco’s pension problem isn’t fixed, escalating pension costs will ultimately force city officials to confront this choice: make huge service cuts and layoffs or be unable to meet the city’s retirement obligations to its retired workers. That’s why we have to act now.

Other pension funds have faced this reality. One San Francisco union leader whose fund is paid by its workers told me that his union voted to reduce future pension benefits while increasing the amount of employees’ contributions. “It was a bitter pill, but we knew we had to do it,” he said.

The proposed charter amendment doesn’t go this far and only has a minimal impact on the city’s present pension liabilities since it only changes contribution levels for future employees. However, if the amendment reaches the June ballot, these modest reforms should not become a wedge issue.

Having a sustainable pension fund that protects the futures of workers without bankrupting the city is a progressive value. Progressives should also support ending pension abuses that only benefit a small number of workers at the expense of taxpayers and other workers who contribute to the fund. Pension reform is one step, among others, that must be taken to restore San Francisco’s fiscal stability.

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s public defender.

San Francisco’s undocumented children


OPINION The recent news stories criticizing the city’s juvenile probation department for sending undocumented children home instead of handing them over to the federal immigration authorities has ignited a firestorm of negative attacks.

However, the stories missed a key fact: the city’s practice of transporting youth home was enacted with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service 12 years ago.

San Francisco’s 1989 voter-approved sanctuary law specifically forbids city officials from providing information to federal immigration authorities to aid in deporting noncitizens. While the law does not protect adult felons, it’s silent on the issue of what the city should do with undocumented children after their juvenile cases are concluded.

In 1996 the city’s Juvenile Probation Department drafted a set of policies declaring that undocumented children were entitled to due process of the courts. The policies stipulated that juveniles who wanted to return to their families would be given an airline ticket home after completing their sentences. Children whose families could not be located would be released to halfway homes or foster care, consistent with the way other minors were treated.

In 1993 the INS was sued in the class action suit Flores vs. Reno for unlawfully housing undocumented minors in juvenile correction facilities without access to their families or legal representation. The case settled in 1997 with the INS agreeing that detained children should be placed in the "least restrictive environment," and that every effort would be made to reunite minors with their families.

Prior to the Flores settlement, juvenile probation officials and an attorney for the SF Public Defender’s Office met with representatives from the regional INS office to review San Francisco’s policies.

In 2002 the INS was subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security and became Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While ICE was given the task of prosecuting undocumented children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was given the responsibility of protecting these children. Unsurprisingly, in the post-Sept. 11 era, ICE took a more aggressive stance against immigrant youth, particularly those involved in the juvenile justice system.

Meanwhile Congress began debating what to do with unaccompanied children who are taken into ICE custody. In 2002, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act, stating that "unaccompanied alien minors are among the most vulnerable of the immigrant population." Feinstein noted that "many of these children have entered the country under traumatic circumstances … they are young and alone, subject to abuse and exploitation."

San Francisco’s solution of sending kids home to their families, while imperfect, served at least one purpose: of the seven children represented by my office who were sent home in the last 18 months, none have been rearrested in the United States. San Francisco’s reunification policy was legally justified, fair to youth and their families, and cost-effective.

Jeff Adachi

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s public defender.