Shut Up and Take My Money!

In October of 2015, I went from living at the Navigation Center to living in a building master leased by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. As much as housing gave me the illusion of freedom, I actually felt that some freedom was taken away, as from here on out, I had to sign over my check to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and have them cut me a check for my income minus rent (what is called the “modified payment program” or “third-party checks”). When I was renting before, I was always dependable to pay the rent within the first few days of the month when I got my benefits. Now, I cannot have my income direct-deposited due to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s aversion to allowing their tenants to pay their rent by check.

As a disability rights activist, I was inspired by the film “The Power of 504,” which chronicled the takeover of the San Francisco federal building in 1977 by disabled activists demanding inclusion in society. However, this troubling policy, which actually exists in some — but not all — supportive housing sites runs counter to everything these activists fought for.

A few months after moving in, I began to learn more about tenants rights laws, one such example was Proposition M of 2008, whose passage created Section 37.10B of the Administrative Code, which addressed harassment of tenants. Basically, it banned landlords from, among other things, refusing “to accept or acknowledge receipt of a tenants lawful rent payment” and refusing “to cash a rent check for over 30 days.” However, and I wonder why the proponents of this measure did not think of this, this only applied to tenants under rent control, which seems extremely arbitrary, as rent control is supposed to be about governing rental rates in buildings on the private market.

While harassment of tenants is a major issue in many supportive housing sites, I will not speak to that in this article, rather, I want to point out one example of how thousands of tenants like myself have been denied many of the same rights that those in privately run buildings have (and many of us will never have because we are too poor to get into a rent-controlled, but not vacancy-controlled building).

While it is true that accepting personal checks carries the risk of checks bouncing, the State of California does provide a legal remedy which allows for landlords to only accept cash, which is not what I want for supportive housing sites, but it would be reasonable to ask that a tenant who has bounced their check seek another alternate payment method for the next three months. And while some tenants have difficulty with drugs, alcohol and money management, the threat of eviction should be enough for them to enroll in third-party checks for a reasonable period of time.

This is actually personal for me. Every holiday season, my girlfriend sends for me to go to Oregon through the new year, and the only way I can get access to my income is when I come back to SF, go to the crowded THC office, and wait hours for someone to get my check. I dunno how I will be able to do it with COVID-19 still raging.

While Tenderloin Housing Clinic accepts money orders as an alternative, I do not trust them, given that it boosts the check cashing industry, and money orders are relatively untraceable, unlike checks, and losing a money order or having it stolen on the Tenderloin streets would be disastrous. And when I brought this up as a discussion topic at the SRO Task Force, Dan Jordan, the other tenant rep who works for my landlord, said that our checks “tend to be rubbery.” This was from our September 2018 meeting.

What we need is a uniform policy that respects supportive housing tenants’ rights to pay by any legal method unless they show they can’t. I would be willing to have a collaboration between providers and tenants, but we must draw a line in the sand around forcing people on modified payment programs when they clearly don’t need it or limiting methods of payment based on ableist and classist stereotypes. Better yet, given the move towards contactless payment options due to the pandemic, HSH should set up a portal allowing tenants to use their debit card to pay their rent.

It’s long past time for change, we deserve the right to direct deposit, we deserve the right to pay rent by check, and we even deserve contactless rent payment options as well.