Tenant Landlord Clinic Wins Prestigious Award

Helping renters keep their homes is key to maintaining the fabric of a neighborhood.

An innovative housing clinic in the Lower Polk District of San Francisco designed to prevent homelessness has won the prestigious Downtown Achievement Pinnacle Award from the International Downtown Association (IDA). And partial thanks goes to two UC Law SF alumni who got the project off the ground.

Originally an idea put forth by District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the clinic is the result of hard work by Gabriel Bellman ’05, Director of Graduate Advising in the UC Law SF Career Development Office, and Kevin Thomason ’94, who is now director of the clinic. “The clinic’s primary mission is to help vulnerable residents save their homes by avoiding eviction,” Bellman said. The clinic provides tenants and landlords services to avoid litigation, including education, counseling, referral services, mediation and other forms of constructive conflict resolution.

In its first year of operation, the Lower Polk Tenant Landlord Clinic (TLC) helped 87 people stay in their homes. Another 93 tenants received guidance that reduced tensions and reestablished more positive working relationships. At the same time, it has slowed gentrification and preserved the fabric of the neighborhood by keeping some of its longest inhabitants housed.

The clinic is funded through a grant from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Bellman and Thomason teamed up to write and secure the grant and worked with Christian Martin, then Executive Director of the Lower Polk Community Benefit District, to launch the project. The district is just to the west of the UC Law SF campus.

As an attorney and mediator, Bellman has handled countless landlord tenant cases and knows how destructive they can be. “Preventing people from becoming homeless can be rooted in a positive tenant-landlord relationship,” Bellman said. “We know homelessness is not far away from many SF residents. Our goal is to solve the homelessness crisis. Both Kevin and I feel passionately about this. Why not? This is one small step, but at some point we will look back on the medieval treatment of some of our citizens and wonder if we did as much as we could. So it’s a start.”

A range of service providers work with clinic clients, including the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Conflict Intervention Service,  UC Law SF, and the San Francisco Apartment Owners Association. UC Law SF offers post-graduate fellowships at the clinic for students interested in alternative dispute resolution and mediation. Two graduates have served there thus far, spending some of their time staffing a booth at Sgt. John Macauley Park on Larkin St., where they can educate members of the public about their rights and how the clinic can help.

For residents to qualify for free assistance from the TLC, tenants must be currently housed, experiencing conflict with their housing provider, be mid-to-low income, and reside in the Tenderloin, Lower Polk or surrounding areas.

Martin, now with the SoMa West Community Benefit District, said the program is one of the “few anti-homeless initiatives in San Francisco that works by preventing homelessness. I hope to see this program grow and continue to help more at-risk families in coming years.”

Thomason said it’s been gratifying to work successfully with the San Francisco Apartment Owners Association, which has been able to intervene on behalf of a tenant who was facing pressure from her landlord to move out.

Andrea Carla Michaels is the Polk Street “Pizza Lady” and a 27-year resident of the neighborhood. A former standup comic and television writer, she now works as a consultant naming companies and writing crossword puzzles for the New York Times. She takes leftover slices at the end of the day from Nob Hill Pizza & Schawarma, heats them up and walks the sidewalks and alleys, delivering them to anyone who needs a meal. When Michaels ran into conflict with her landlord she received assistance from Charley Goss, who handles governmental affairs for the SFAA.

While the matter is not fully resolved, the Pizza Lady is still in her apartment and on the job. “If we lose her,” Thomason said, “we lose one of our most interesting neighborhood characters.”

Thomason hopes the award will help the benefits district expand the program within San Francisco and, eventually, to other cities.