Dana Robinson lives in her Volkswagen Beetle.
She works various part-time jobs, but for three years, Robinson has had a hard time finding a place she can afford to rent in notoriously expensive San Francisco. Too many times, she didn’t move her car in time for street cleaning and got ticketed for it. The unpaid tickets piled up, and the debt was compounded with late fees. In all, Robinson owed more than $1,000. That was a frightening amount, but what was even scarier for Robinson was the prospect of losing her car.
She thought, “if I lose the Beetle, I have nowhere to live and no way to get back and forth to work. I had two months of literally living in terror of having my car towed every time I got out to go to work.”
“I was just a wreck at that point,” Robinson said.
But through the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, Robinson got her amount reduced to around $300 and that allowed her to pay off the debt.
“It cleaned me out, but I was glad to get it taken care of,” Robinson said.
Two years ago, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to assess and reform how fines and fees impact its poorest residents — those in families living below the federal poverty level. San Francisco officials believe their efforts could be a model for Chicago and other cities to follow.
The financial justice project’s mission is finding ways to hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress.
Cutting towing and boot fees in half and allowing people to perform community service to pay off tickets without additional fees are among the reforms that took effect this year.
Anne Stuhldreher, director of the project, said the first few months have shown that the reforms are a win-win for both residents and government.
“The number of people getting on payment plans went up 400 percent. The revenue that the department brought in also went up,” Stuhldreher said.
What the city learned is that if you tell people to pay $500 dollars who don’t have $50, they won’t pay. But if you say pay a little bit a month, they will.
San Francisco is ridiculously expensive; even families earning six figures have trouble with rent. Affordable housing is slim. To be poor here is an incredible struggle. Inc. magazine ranked San Francisco as the most expensive city
And in San Francisco, just like in Chicago, the government helps to balance its books by charging fees to people who can’t afford them. As a consequence, people have gone bankrupt, remain saddled with debt, trapped in poverty, and unable to climb the economic ladder.
For Stuhldreher, what happened in Ferguson, Mo. directly related to San Francisco. In 2014, Ferguson owned the national spotlight after the controversial police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown sparked dramatic protests.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the Ferguson Police Department and discovered an intense practice of ticketing in black communities. The disproportionate ticketing was a huge source of revenue. “City officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson’s law enforcement activity,” read a Justice Department report on its investigation.
“I remember thinking I hope that’s not happening in San Francisco or California,” Stuhldreher recalled.
But it was, and it mortified her.
Municipalities around the country are watching San Francisco’s experiment as a first of its kind. They’re not only interested in what San Francisco has done in term of financial justice. They also want to know how San Francisco, a city known for its liberal leanings, has done it. Elected officials and advocates all say the barriers to reform were few. Their advice to Chicago and other places is to overload politicos with data and to build a coalition with city department heads and community members.
One of the first things the financial justice project did was to create a task force and issue a report. One of the findings showed 4 million Californians have had a suspended license not for being a bad driver but for not paying tickets.
In her role as the legal director of The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Bay Area, Elisa Della-Piana said she heard story after story about drivers who couldn’t afford to pay their tickets. Around 2010, under the name Debt Free SF, a coalition of groups formed to look at these issues.
“We had gone to the California state legislature with a bill that said stop suspending peoples’ licenses because they can’t afford to pay,” Della-Piana said.
The bill didn't pass.
“We got laughed out of the building,” she said.
Della-Piana credits San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project for the shift in attitude.
“I have been on a lot of task forces and committees, and they’re very often totally useless. It’s a tribute to the financial justice project taking their mission seriously and clout positioned within the city,” Della-Piana said.
The turning point for advocates came when the financial justice project held public hearings in city council and state lawmakers heard personal stories.
“Having Republican legislators listening to our message, having Democratic legislators advocating, and having police organizations recognizing that punishing someone for not being able to pay is not where they wanted their priorities to be,” Della-Piana said.
Last year, that bill passed in the California statehouse.
Currently, in Illinois, a bill languishes in the House that would do the same. The opposition is from the Chicago police union and the state sheriff’s association. Della-Piana said California’s playbook might help.
The state’s change with drivers’ licenses is evidence that San Francisco’s work has reached beyond the city. Another example is Gov. Jerry Brown signing a law this year eliminating cash bail. The task force recommended that, too.
The person who created the financial justice project is Jose Cisneros, San Francisco’s treasurer. He said he couldn’t have done this singularly as an elected official. City department heads, the district attorney, the public defender, the police chief, the sheriff, legal aid advocates and, of course, residents affected by the fees, were brought in.
“We didn’t find a lot of conceptual pushback on the concept of treating everybody the same and being fair to everyone. I would say where the work has come in though has been where we have to make budget accommodations, and that’s really where the mayor’s leadership and the mayor’s budget office have really been our champions in terms of continuing to be able to move the city forward while making some of these changes,” Cisneros said.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed said the city budget hasn’t suffered.
While some may fear the changes could result in less revenue from fines and fees, Breed stresses that the reforms can ultimately produce a better rate of return and even lower costs.
In August of this year, Breed announced the San Francisco Superior Court would lift $32 million in debt from criminal justice fees for things like ankle monitoring — another first in the country.
“We know based on history with the data we’ve collected that of that $32 million, we’d be lucky if we collected 9 percent. Many of the monies that we were collecting were being used for collection purposes, and often times, that’s costing us more than we’re actually collecting,” Breed said.
Going forward, those administrative fees will no longer burden people exiting jail or the criminal justice system — good news for Mary Vandigriff.
She works at a social service agency in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where a number of low-income San Franciscans reside.
“My story is a little different. I got clean, went to treatment, got clean, got out, was working, and an old case from before when I was using came up. And I went back to jail,” Vandigriff said.
When she was released from jail, her court fines from probation totaled $10,000.
“I live in low-income housing here in San Francisco. I had to restart getting my life together because of this case. Every day, I was scared they were going to garnish my wages when I’m making $15 an hour,” Vandigriff said.
She spoke out during the public hearings at city hall. When the mayor announced the elimination of the criminal justice fees at a press conference, Vandigriff stood behind her smiling.
Back here in Chicago, advocates are steadfast in pushing for reform. In late October, Ald. Gilbert Villegas introduced an ordinance to end late penalties for tickets accrued by drivers. The lesson from the Bay Area is to build a coalition also within city government. At this point, it’s unclear if Chicago’s mayor or finance department will get on board.
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side reporter. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.