Op-ed: PSH Eviction Data Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

by Jordan Davis

Every September, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing releases data on evictions for the preceding fiscal year, as required by a City ordinance. Since 2020, I have read these yearly reports, and the more I learn about these reports, the more skeptical I am of whether they paint a true picture of evictions from permanent supportive housing (PSH).

At September’s Homelessness Oversight Commission meeting, department director Shireen McSpadden noted a downward trend of evictions from permanent supportive housing. I have also learned from several commissioners that they may have access to data the public does not. So, here is a deep dive into the data, why it is flawed, what data points are missing, and what can be done about it.

Each eviction report contains a chart listing all PSH sites in alphabetical order, though I believe that listing them by provider would be a better practice. PSH tenants usually know which providers are bad actors, and it would make it a lot simpler if we were able to see which provider was evicting more people (and totals by provider in addition to the building-by-building numbers).

The report also includes other data, such as the number of adult tenants and number of households in each building, the number of written eviction notices issued, the number of unlawful detainers and the number of actual evictions, and specific reasons for each category, including  non-payment of rent, “lease violations” or both.

But there are significant gaps in the data. The information about evictions for non-payment of rent doesn’t specify how many notices were for what general amount of rent owed. Some people who receive written notices, unlawful detainers, or evictions may owe very little, or they may owe a lot. Then, there are “lease violations”, which can range from real life safety matters like assaults, fire, and defenestration, to small issues like blue hair dye on a bathtub, or your room not being suitable for the cover of Good Housekeeping.

And of course, anybody who reads these reports can see that not all written notices lead to unlawful detainer filings, and that not all unlawful detainers lead to eviction, which could be taken to mean that either tenants are winning or the provider’s heart grew three sizes and decided not to see the eviction through. This is not the reality. 

An unlawful detainer is scary enough, but for someone who is low income and might not have the skills to find help, it can be even more daunting. So many tenants who are served with an unlawful detainer “voluntarily” leave their housing, so it is not recorded as an eviction. Some may even be forced into a settlement, which is often referred to as a “stipulation” or a “behave and stay,” in which the tenant is on a form of probation where one screw-up can lead to eviction, no matter how minor or unrelated to the issues leading to the original unlawful detainer. According to one lawyer at the Eviction Defense Collaborative who requested anonymity, “[In my opinion,] the ‘behave and stay’ is sinister not so much for the content, but for the procedure. Without a ‘behave and stay,’ the tenant has the right to a jury trial before eviction.”

But as part of a “behave and stay” settlement, the lawyer added, a tenant waives the right to trial in favor of a five-minute arbitration hearing, which the tenant can’t appeal if they lose.  

As a result, there’s no data on the number of unlawful retainers served or the success rate of “behave and stay” agreements.

So, how can we better track these actions? I propose the following: 

  • Instead of listing each building in alphabetical order, list each building by provider.
  • Require more data on “voluntary departures” from permanent supportive housing, even though they may or may not be a backdoor eviction. A significant number of voluntary departures would raise questions.
  • Require more data on “behave and stays,” including the number of tenants who have been served an unlawful detainer and are on such agreements, and the rulings of such.
  • In fact, it may be best to list all the results of an unlawful detainer, and break down the number of cases resolved through court-ordered evictions, voluntary departures, settlements, cases won, dropped by the provider, and even deaths, hospitalizations, and incarceration.
  • -It may be good to also list the attorneys/firms each provider uses and the cost of these evictions. Many of these firms are not known for their ethics, and they may be involved in other questionable evictions. Drawing these connections could help housing rights advocates at large understand this issue better.

Also, in addition to a yearly report, the Homelessness Department should post an easily accessible live dashboard of permanent supportive housing evictions that makes it possible for the user to compare different data points, including those above.

I know the level of detail might be excessive to many San Franciscans who aren’t as familiar with these issues, but to simplify, our success in keeping permanent supportive housing tenants housed translates as the City’s success in combating homelessness. If evicting tenants for ridiculous reasons and without meaningful support from the City is a costly process, then so are the results. San Francisco needs to do better. 

Source: Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing