The Lower Polk Tenant Landlord Clinic
is determined to retain San Francisco’s charm and historical neighborhoods
intact and, most importantly, keep
San Franciscans housed.
Every eviction creates utter chaos and trauma for the people being evicted. I know; I was evicted. It was abrupt and unexpected. It took time to get an affordable rental again. Afterward, it got me thinking. Why couldn’t there be a resource all in one place where I could get information, advice, and help to resolve the issues that had led to my eviction, which ended with my stuff piled into garbage bags on the sidewalk?
Last year, exactly 1,592 San Francisco residents received eviction notices. Not every one of those people got evicted, but this is still far too many. When displacement happens, neighborhoods change and are at risk for slowly losing their essential character. San Francisco’s charm and historical neighborhoods begin to disappear.
If you read the news, you will read stories about teachers and other public servants living in cars, people working two jobs who are still homeless, and entire families living on the street.
Working with Gabriel Bellman, who is a director over at University of California Hastings, we came up with a unique model for a program to help prevent homelessness. It’s elegant and simple, but nobody else was doing it at the time. Basically, you build a coalition of groups that are the best at what they do. Then that coalition works together to keep people housed.
Once Gabriel and I had outlined the basic ideas and structure for the program, I shared those ideas with our District Supervisor, Aaron Peskin, via a short letter. Within a few weeks, Supervisor Peskin had reserved funding for the project as we had proposed.
I wrote the proposal to secure the funding and we won the grant. I am proud to say that U.C. Hastings was our first coalition member.
Then we met with Charley Goss over at SFAA and explained the idea of providing counseling and education for everyone, including landlords. He was instantly intrigued and joined us as well. Finally, we met with Carole Conn over at the Bar Association of San Francisco about their housing mediation program, called the Conflict Intervention Service (BASF/CIS). She and her team joined our team, and BASF/CIS became our conflict intervention gurus.
The way we do things is a little different than other non-profits in this space. First, we aren’t in opposition to anyone. In fact, the Lower Polk Community Benefit District by charter exists to benefit everyone. All CBDs are funded from an assessment on property owners. We can’t therefore exclude one part of the neighborhood population, especially not property owners. They are sometimes our best allies when it comes to keeping people housed.
For example, a few months ago, a woman contacted our office. She was facing eviction. The woman had lived for 27 years in the Lower Polk and was well-known for doing charitable work. Were she to have lost her home, the Lower Polk would have lost an essential element of its character and resilience. In fact, she did not lose her home and Charley Goss, from SFAA, played a large role in that outcome.
The way we work is simple.
At a fundamental level, we work to make sure people stay housed where they are. Losing an apartment in San Francisco is a terrible thing. It can easily result in homelessness. Since San Francisco spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year on services for the homeless, anything we can do to stabilize housing and prevent homelessness not only tempers the human impact of homelessness but also reduces the financial impact as well.
But more important than saving money is saving people from the utter chaos that happens when they lose housing. Many of our clients are people with mental and behavioral health issues. They literally can’t help themselves. They may have disabilities, cognitive issues, or other things that prevent them from communicating clearly with their landlords. When we become aware of a client who needs help, we work closely with Carole and her team at BASF/CIS to focus resources on that client. We also work closely with Gabriel over at U.C. Hastings College of the Law. In fact, Gabriel, Carole, and I have worked to set up an innovative conflict resolution fellowship program with Hastings. When needed, we also work with Charley at SFAA to help educate landlords as to their responsibilities and obligations.
In addition to being non-adversarial and interdisciplinary, we also deliver our services in a different way. To me and our other team members, it always seemed strange that one can refinance a house online, literally sometimes moving millions of dollars, but that our most vulnerable populations cannot gain access to basic baseline social services via phone, text, and email. So, to use our services, folks just need to email me at email@example.com. They can also call or text us at 415-723-0785. If they want to meet us in person, they can do that too. If they need us to meet them at a local coffee shop, we will do that too.
We do whatever it takes. If people don’t have a way to contact us, or to even know about our services, we do a number of outreach efforts, including flyering, seminars, tabling at public events and in public spaces, etc. We really do try to reach our target populations.
This year, we will be making a documentary film to elevate the visibility of the TLC, while educating viewers about its successes. This documentary will be directed by an award-winning director, and will feature the important stories from our clients, and additional pedagogical information about tenant rights and landlord obligations. Our hope is that it will go viral via social media and reach people who we might otherwise not reach.
Another principle in our program design is that we do not make inappropriate referrals. If someone comes to us, we help them. It is as simple as that. Whatever they need, we help them with it. Between our coalition members, we can usually help our clients without referring them outside of our coalition.
I am invested in this issue. You might even say passionate. We all are. Every one of our coalition members is as passionate as I am. We do this work because it’s the right thing to do, and it works. Since its start, the TLC has helped over 200 people stay housed in the Lower Polk and surrounding environs.
That success largely points back to the vision of Supervisor Aaron Peskin who made the funding possible to establish the award-winning TLC. We also owe a debt of gratitude to him for recently making money available for the TLC to expand to assist “mom and pop” merchants. If anyone reading this article knows a small merchant who needs help, send them our way.
Another key thank you is to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), our city partner. Without them, the TLC would not exist.
The successes of the TLC garnered international recognition by winning the 2019 International Downtown Association's (IDA) Pinnacle Award for being the absolute best at what we do.
Finally, remember when I said I was evicted? It happened exactly at the time when I was collaborating with Gabriel on the original proposal for the TLC. Had I not been evicted, I don’t think the TLC would have happened, because the passion to ensure that others do not encounter the same fate may not have been as intense.
Sometimes life does strange things like this.
Kevin L. Thompson J.D. is the director of the Lower Pold Tenant Landlord Clinic (TLC) and can be reached at 415-723-0785.