The Tenderloin, May 2, 2020 Photo by Kerim Harmanci

Mayor London Breed received a demand letter this morning — the precursor to a potential lawsuit — insisting she follow the Board of Supervisors’ unanimously passed ordinance to procure 8,250 hotel rooms and put vulnerable homeless people in some 7,000 of them. 

The April 26 deadline for that law has long since come and passed; Breed refused to sign it and has, openly, stated she has no intention of abiding by it. The city has, per its own counting, obtained 2,373 hotel rooms. Homeless people are housed in 1,053 of them; 1,210 are empty. 

The letter was penned by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights on behalf of its pro-bono client, the Coalition on Homelessness. The ACLU and other groups were also featured on its letterhead. 

The demand letter also takes Breed to task for the city cutting off an outside company’s proposal to test every homeless shelter-dweller for COVID-19, free of charge, and instead allegedly rediverting this effort to skilled nursing facilities — a story broken last week by the Public Press

“The City’s refusal to take additional, legislatively required steps that are intended to reduce further community spread of this deadly virus is endangering lives of people experiencing homelessness and the community as a whole,” reads the demand letter, penned by Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights legal director Elisa Della-Piana and her colleague, Victoria Larson.

This letter was emailed to the mayor, City Attorney, all 11 supervisors, and other city officials this morning. Among some of the legislators who wrote and passed the emergency ordinance, it was not unwelcome. 

“Our job is to legislate and make the laws here in San Francisco and the executive branch’s job is to enforce them,” said Supervisor Shamman Walton. “We unanimously passed this legislation and it should be supported by the executive branch of this government.” 

Added Supervisor Matt Haney, “The mayor was very open about ignoring the law. So I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that some folks are escalating and threatening to sue the city.” 

This, in fact, appears to be a growth industry; UC Hastings yesterday filed suit against the city for the squalid conditions of the Tenderloin during the COVID-19 crisis. 

As Mission Local has written throughout the legislative clash over hotels, mayors of San Francisco are legally permitted to blow off legislation — even legislation passed by a veto-proof majority — by simply refusing to spend the money underlying it. 

“This is certainly not the first time at the local, state, or federal level when the chief executive of the executive branch of government ignored the duly passed law of the legislative branch,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “This has happened repeatedly throughout our country at every level of governance. … When a veto-proof majority of the legislative branch enacts a law, the chief executive should implement that law with all due haste. That would be government at its best. But when that does not happen, it’s not like we’re gonna go to court and sue the mayor.” 

But someone else might. 

Della-Piana says the goal here is not a lawsuit: “The mayor’s refusal to follow the law is unnecessarily putting people’s lives at risk,” she noted. 

As for whether the mayor is bound to follow the law in our system, that’s trickier. “Mayors have done this and gotten away with it before,” says Della-Piana. “There is a law. The mayor is deciding to violate it. I understand that in some sense that may be her prerogative. The question is: is it illegal now?” 

The urgency of the situation matters, Della-Piana continued. “There are plenty of times when government doesn’t follow the law and nobody sues them and plenty of times when we do.”  

She further alleged that the city’s inability to test its most vulnerable street- and shelter-dwellers and the shunting of planned shelter testing to nursing home residents violated California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 17000

By failing to undertake these COVID-19 tests, she continued, the city was derelict in its duty to “relieve and support all incompetent, poor, indigent persons, and those incapacitated by age, disease, or accident, lawfully resident therein.” 

With the city’s reserve, federal and state funds to reimburse San Francisco for hotel rooms, and a Board-crafted plan to staff the hotels, Della-Piana argues that housing thousands more homeless people is within the city’s means and ability. 

“We’ve been frantically trying to get the city to move as quickly as possible and it’s been like hitting our heads against a brick wall, over and over again,” said Coalition on Homelessness executive director Jennifer Friedenbach. “I hope this kind of legal action can create the political will necessary to make things happen.” 

The mayor’s office deferred our call for a comment to the City Attorney but defended its efforts to place individuals in hotels and ramp up testing efforts. The City Attorney’s office has not yet sent us a statement, but we will append this story if and when it does. 

Della-Piana said she expects some manner of response within seven days — and she welcomed the opportunity to sit down with the City Attorney’s office to hash out “what the challenges are and what is possible … we do not want to foreclose on any good or better-than-what-we-have-now results that could come of this.” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Breed needs to address the outrageous increase of the homeless population since the announcement of her hotel idea.

  2. Karl,

    I respect and enjoy your comments.

    Do you think the threat of Charter Amendments to limit her power would sway her?

  3. Joe,

    Thank you for the informative article. Does the City have an explanation for why some 1200 rooms are empty right now?

    1. Todesgellebter,

      Pardon my intervention.


      The question could be not why the rooms are empty.

      The question is …

      Who is getting paid for the thousand empty rooms?


  4. She is exactly the mayor that Gary Conway, et al want. Hope her underlings are still buying nice things for her approval.

  5. I live a block from Hastings and the lawsuit is valid on many levels. The homeless are deserving of more, and the tax paying residents of the tenderloin are now living in the middle of a homeless encampment. Every time we walk out of our buildings it is a health hazard to even walk a block. Open your eyes Mayor Breed. Justifying your lack of action because all the other Mayors have been unable to solve the homeless problem is a Lame response!

  6. I still fault the Board.

    The Board passed a law saying that Breed was required to arrange accommodations and supply the daily needs and security for approximately 8,000 unhoused peoples by April 26.

    Why didn’t they just pass a law saying that she had to develop and distribute a vaccine by April 26? They had the votes to do so.

    1. Exactly — the petulant demands from the BOS are irrational and unachievable.

      Just because the BOS demands something — in this case, a task as extraordinarily daunting as housing 1000s of homeless individuals (in all manner of condition) — be completed by an absurdly ambitious date, doesn’t mean that it will be done; assuming that it’s even possible to be accomplished.

      Furthermore, the Mayor is not the handmaiden/lackey of the BOS.

      At this point Mayor Breed would appear to be the only adult in the room.

      1. I have never been this embarrassed by the notion that the BOS ‘represents’ me.

        Everybody from our own Joe E to Michael Krasny to Kevin Fagen (SFgate) to even Rafael Mandleman has acknowledged the tremendous logistical barriers that need to be overcome in order to move this diverse group of 8,000 into hotel rooms, instantly. How does a city worker safely help someone pick up a tent encampment and pack it onto a truck? As Fagen pointed out, it only takes one person in a hotel room to start screaming and banging on the walls to disrupt the entire building. How do you suddenly keep people in a hotel room 24/7? What good is all this money spent if people congregate on the street all day and then just go back to the hotel at night?

        Now the BOS is talking tent cities. It seems as if they believe that they have accomplished their goal of harassing the Mayor in the middle of a pandemic and now they are moving on to solutions that have some basis in reality.

        I really hope that the voters remember this moment when the BOS revealed just how worthless they are.

      2. Like so many neoliberal Democrats, Breed is as up to the task at hand as Pelosi is in DC to make Americans whole in the face of this disruptive pandemic, or Napa with her ice cream in her Sub Zeroes.

      3. Karl,

        I respect and enjoy your comments.

        Do you think the threat of Charter Amendments to limit her power would sway her?

    2. Of course. All the Supes do is pass laws. They don’t care whether those laws can be reasonably implemented.

      They might as well pass a law saying that the City should buy a pony for every little girl.

      It’s just posturing and a blatant attempt to undermine a popular Mayor.

  7. Isn’t this the same Board of Supervisors that blocked Mayor Breed’s proposal to lift height limits for affordable housing across the city last year?

      1. Yes, all this grandstanding about hotel rooms is a red herring, given that none of these supervisors have any intention of making the hard zoning choices necessary to fix our city’s affordable housing shortage which is one of the primary causes of homelessness.

  8. “But when that does not happen, it’s not like we’re gonna go to court and sue the mayor.”

    Peskin 2.0 was a downgrade to potted planthood.

    This is a public health emergency not a minor matter where reasonable minds might differ.

    I sadly doubt that the plaintiffs will be granted standing by the court.

    The Board of Supervisors, on the other hand, would surely have standing to make the case.

    Unless the Board want to be permanently relegated to junior partner status as potted plants under the unitary Mayoral government.

    1. Marcos — 

      This story was written quickly, so not everything made it. But before we relegate the Board to wholly vegetative status, consider this unused quote from Supervisor Peskin:

      “Whether this is a ‘Constitutional crisis’ or not may be interesting, but to me it does not matter. I think the legislative branch has other ways to impose its will.”


      1. This will have zero impact on Breed. An empty flex by a bunch of turds. Would never make it to a lawsuit.

        1. Okay, dude.

          Just remember: I’m the newspaper writer writing the story. If you want to talk to the principals, I advise you to pick up the phone or write an email.


      2. Thanks Joe,

        The clock is ticking, this has been imperative for 2 months now. I understand political time frames, but emergencies are different, there are different rules and legal frameworks.

        I’d doubt that this budget year would offer sufficient toehold for hard ball negotiations to compel performance from Breed on housing homeless people while the public health orders are in effect.

        Had Peskin 1.0 made that mused threat, it would be quite different than when Peskin 2.0 does.

      3. Aaron,

        And, you have a way to impose your will on our behalf too.

        You have, like, 3 weeks to get 8 of your ‘Progressive’ comrades
        to come together with some proposed Charter Amendments.

        For elected top cop, just go back a hundred years to original description.

        Charter Amendments, my man!!

        You and Matt and Tony were the masters.

        All sides together to gain more power to the people.