Editorial: San Francisco’s housing troubles doesn’t mean every tenant gets a free lawyer
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Shirley Chen, 4, stands with her mother as they attend a rally outside 1350 Stockton on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 in San Francisco, Calif. Today a coalition of tenant, civl rights, and community organizations announced a campaign to protect tenants against intimidation, evictions, and increasing rents in Chinatown.

San Francisco’s superheated housing market is producing a wave of evictions — up to 3,000 per year by some estimates. But Proposition F on the June 5 ballot proposes a poorly crafted answer that goes too far: a guarantee of a taxpayer-funded lawyer for any tenant fighting an ouster.

There’s no income test, meaning a high-income renter can tap into the idea, which provides an attorney from start to finish in a legal fight. It also establishes a right to legal representation on the city books, a major expansion of government duties with unforeseeable consequences.

Tenants rights groups pushing the measure like to point out anecdotes of San Franciscans being pushed out by landlords seeking a higher return on investment. No question — that happens in this expensive city. However, the right to counsel also would apply to tenants who are abusive to others or destructive to property — and you would be forced to cover their legal fees.

It’s a blank-check concept in an ever-more-litigious society.

This measure falls short on another score. The Board of Supervisors is studying a similar plan that can be adjusted more easily than a voter-confirmed measure that would need a rerun at the ballot box to address any unintended consequences.

In 2012 the city adopted a policy to offer legal help to low-income tenants facing eviction. That effort is partly successful, providing counseling and limited attorney representation in court. Like many city services, it should be improved, and it offers a key backstop for tenants facing landlords who usually come equipped with lawyers.

Prop. F steps up the extent and cost of more service. But it doesn’t come with any financial limit or track record. Backers say the mere threat of a city-provided lawyer could force a property owner to back off an eviction, a suggestion that’s hard to quantify.

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