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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