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As San Franciscans struggle to pay rent, calls for landlord-tenant mediation go 'through the roof'

TLC aims to keep tenants housed and businesses in place.  | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline
By Carrie Sisto - Published on April 15, 2020.

The ongoing pandemic and shelter-in-place order have been difficult for both residential and commercial tenants, as they struggle to pay rent with little to no income coming in. 

As a result, calls to the Lower Polk Tenant Landlord Clinic (TLC) have “gone through the roof” in recent days, according to Chris Schulman, board president of the Lower Polk Community Benefit District, which administers the clinic.

The clinic was established in 2017 through a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), with the mission of preventing the displacement of people and businesses in and around lower Polk Street. (Given the scale of the current crisis, however, it's also opened its doors to those in other neighborhoods as well.)

The Bar Association of San FranciscoUC Hastings College of Law and the San Francisco Apartment Association all pitch in to help tenants and landlords resolve disputes, with resources available in multiple languages. Since its founding, the TLC has helped around 200 clients to remain housed, according to director Kevin Thomason. 

While TLC staff don’t provide any legal guidance, they offer information and independent mediation during calls or other communication efforts, provided by the Bar Association’s Conflict Intervention Service (CIS).

The city has provided resources attempting to explain tenant protections during these challenging times, Schulman said. But the details are hard to interpret, and even landlords need assistance understanding them fully.

The goal of mediation is to prevent any legal action and limit the costs associated with any disputes, said Carole Conn, director of public service programs for the Bar Association.

“And it usually works — even when a resolution isn’t reached, the situation fundamentally changes because the conversation is happening openly.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Lower Polk CBD partnered with the TLC to send out postcards to alert tenants of the free resources available.

“Everyone, for the most part, benefits when people stay where they are,” Schulman said, and most landlords want to help tenants figure out a solution.

A recent postcard alerts neighbors to TLC services available during the current pandemic. | Photo: Lower Polk CBD/Facebook

One person who received a postcard was Lower Polk resident Obay Kahala, who found himself struggling to pay April rent due to a COVID-19-related loss of income. He reached out to TLC, and Thomason responded within 24 hours, connecting him with a mediator at CIS.

Kahala said the mediator took time to fully understand his situation, outlining his options in layman’s terms and explaining the city’s COVID-19 eviction protections and the terms he should seek in any rent deferment agreement with his landlord.  

Once he understood his rights, the conversation between the tenant, landlord, and property managers “unfolded relatively organically,” Kahala said. There are no outstanding issues, and all parties have agreed on next steps.

The lack of legal action on either side is a huge relief, Kahala said. 

Kahala added that the mediator from CIS followed up multiple times to make sure everything was moving forward and appropriately documented.

“It’s important to remember that the tenant-landlord connection is a relationship," Conn said. "Sometimes, like all relationships, it needs maintenance.”

Starting today, the TLC and its partners are hosting a series of webinarsfocused on small business commercial leasing, COVID-19 financial relief, and tenant/landlord dispute mediation.

Tenants and landlords can learn more about the free services offered by calling 415-782-8940 or emailing [email protected]

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