Why do nonprofit housing groups evict the formerly homeless? Recent news reports primarily blaming tenant hoarding, nuisance activities or tenants failure to get sufficient advance notice of their problems are wrong.

A San Francisco Examiner story last week attempted to explain why some formerly homeless residents in the city’s non-profit housing get evicted and return to the streets. But it got the story wrong. The chief reason the formerly homeless are evicted in hotels managed by my organization, The Tenderloin Housing Clinic, as well as other operators is nonpayment of rent.

And the overwhelming reason for nonpayment of rent evictions has nothing to do with an alleged “lack of advance notice” to tenants; to the contrary, THC and other nonprofits use expansive eviction prevention strategies.

At THC, these include accompanying three day nonpayment notices with a resource guide for rental assistance and other support; immediate outreach from an on-site case manager; the option of using payment plans to make up back rent; the issuance of an Intent to Litigate letter prior to filing an eviction lawsuit to further encourage action; and direct help applying for rental assistance to make up for amounts owed.

To show the importance of these cautionary steps, of the 63 “Intent to Litigate” letters THC has sent out since March 2013, 66% of tenants avoided an eviction lawsuit.

If a tenant still doesn’t pay rent after all these steps, nonprofits have no choice but to evict. Rental income for nonprofits covers staffing costs, and nonprofits that allow tenants not to pay rent month after month without eviction will soon lack the resources to operate the building (for a good example of the consequences of not evicting non-paying tenants, see the SF Housing Authority)

The Big Picture

There are ways the city can reduce these evictions, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind: the retention rate in nonprofit leased hotels has vastly exceeded projections.

When the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and HSA started the leasing program in 1999, we were hoping that at least 70% of tenants would remain in housing for at least a year. This was based on the historically high turnover rate of extremely low-income tenants overall.

Since that time, retention rates at THC average a remarkable 93%. And that rate is similar to that of other nonprofits operating Care Not Cash hotels, which take people almost directly from the streets and places them in housing.

Many once argued that this could not be done, that homeless persons needed to spend time in shelters undergoing rehab or counseling before being able to maintain housing. An expensive shelter provider/service industry was built based on this assumption, which, for over 90% of the homeless population, has been proven false by Care not Cash's high retention rates.

But given an increasingly troubled homeless population, some are not going to make it. And based on THC’s numbers, the main reason they don’t stay in housing is that they get terminated from city welfare payments and then fail to take action when given opportunities to remedy.

The Cause of Evictions

THC has filed sixty unlawful detainer actions since July 1, 2013. 71% were for nonpayment, and 40% of those issued were for tenants discontinued from General Assistance. Of those who ultimately get evicted, nonpayment is the chief reason.

In contrast, only 28% were issued eviction lawsuits for nuisance. Yet this sector of the formerly homeless gets far more attention than the much larger subgroup whose displacement for nonpayment of rent is easier to address.

Nonpayment evictions of CAAP recipients can be addressed by changing regulations to avoid constant terminations of benefits. Nonpayment for SSI recipients can be reduced by enrollment in the Quick Check direct deposit program, which helps ensure rent gets paid.

Changing CAAP regulations is controversial, as many believe that recipients of public assistance should have to follow some rules. And reducing CAAP terminations increases costs to the city by keeping more people on the welfare rolls.

There is also the question of personal responsibility. If people get evicted after ignoring all requests that they remedy both from HSA and the hotel case manager, is this the nonprofit’s or city’s fault?

The media’s answer is that the city or nonprofits are always to blame when people in permanent housing return to homelessness. That’s why you rarely see stories about San Francisco nonprofits’ remarkably high retention rates, and reporters instead fault them for evictions or for not transitioning their tenants into jobs and apartments.

An Action Plan

Reducing evictions of the formerly homeless requires changes that make the issuance of eviction notices unnecessary in the first place.

Some changes that nonprofit housers have long promoted include more medical providers to mandate money management for SSI recipients. This addresses the core problem of tenants not paying rent. For the same reason, the city also needs to make Quick Check (direct deposit) available for everyone (which, along with modified payment programs that ensure rent payment through two party checks,are also the best strategies for reducing public housing evictions)

Also needed are more case managers in hotels, and a coordinated assessment at every stage where a homeless person is referred to housing. This is particularly important at the CAAP intake to make sure people eligible for Care not Cash get to housing with the right level of services. Everyone agrees that tenants with greater problems should go to hotels with more services, but this has not happened.

With THC’s 93% retention rate and similar rates across other nonprofits, it may be that the city is satisfied. But if San Francisco wants to further reduce evictions, it takes more resources.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron and leases hotels to house the formerly homeless. He writes about San Francisco homeless policies in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd ed.: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century