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Eviction system 'allows itself to be gamed,' frustrating landlords

Craig Miller is chief executive of a Los Angeles office-leasing firm. He's also a landlord, with seven houses for rent around the region.

As Miller tells it, the tenants at one of his properties, a house in Calabasas that rents for $5,225 a month, stopped making payments last summer. Miller began eviction proceedings in August.

"Six months later," he told me, "they're still in the house."

There are plenty of unscrupulous landlords out there — greedy, nasty types who try to squeeze more money out of tenants or ignore unsafe conditions. I'm not overlooking what many honest renters are up against.

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But property owners and lawyers tell me that the other side of the coin are court-savvy tenants who know how to work the system and often get away with staying rent-free for months in other people's homes.

There are even services that specialize in buying extra time for renters who know that eviction is inevitable but want to stay put for as long as possible.

An L.A. company called 866-Eviction markets itself online as the "#1 eviction delay service" and says it can deliver for clients "2 to 7 months rent-free."

"It happens a lot," said Artin Gholian, a Studio City real estate lawyer. "There are a lot of things people can do to slow down the process."

Some renters, he said, will keep moving from home to home, running the same racket over and over to reside comfortably in the Southland without paying rent.

Miller said that when he rented his Calabasas house to a middle-aged couple last year, they said they were facing some financial pressure. In return for their signing a two-year lease, Miller agreed to lower the rent to $3,500 for the first six months, rising to $4,500 for the next six before reaching the full $5,225.

"They frequently didn't pay on time," he said, "but I allowed them to catch up."

Miller finally set the eviction wheels in motion after the tenants missed multiple payments.

"I don't want to evict anyone," he said, "but I have my own mortgage payments to make. I have insurance payments. My son has a brain tumor and I have to care for him."

Miller is typical of many property owners who aren't full-time landlords but instead seek extra income through one or more rental homes. They're small-time players in a market dominated by larger investors who typically deal in apartment buildings.

California has clear rules when it comes to evicting a tenant. According to the state Department of Consumer Affairs the process begins with the property owner filing an unlawful-detainer lawsuit in Superior Court. In most cases, a tenant has just five days to file a written response after being served with a copy of the complaint.

The state says judges often will hear and decide eviction cases within 20 days after a trial has been requested. In reality, lawyers say, it can take a couple of months for a case to be heard.

Then the delaying tactics can begin.

Tenants can file a motion to quash the landlord's unlawful-detainer lawsuit. This usually involves a claim that the tenant wasn't given sufficient notice. If approved by the judge, the landlord will have to serve the summons a second time.

Tenants can file a demurrer challenging the reason for the eviction. If accepted by the judge, this can require the landlord to restart the entire process from scratch.

Tenants also can file requests for additional information or raise "special circumstances."

"Once you get into this mode, months can go by," said David B. Epstein, a Pasadena real estate lawyer. "For the property owner, you're just stuck."

Eviction-delay services such as 866-Eviction specialize in preparing stacks of go-slow court motions for clients. Typically, the client simply has to sign his or her name to the documents.

Julian Moutan, 866-Eviction's office manager, told me the company "is just helping the little guy." He said a few months of rent-free housing isn't much to ask of landlords, "considering how high the rents are in California."

I asked how much his company gets paid in light of the fact that his clients are stiffing their landlords.

"We handle that on a case-by-case basis," Moutan said. Then he observed that "this is starting to sound like an interview" and hung up.

Epstein said people using these services usually pay a flat fee upfront that's significantly less than the rent they'd have to pay their landlord over the course of several months.

The eviction process was designed with the best intentions to protect tenants' rights, said Laine Wagenseller, a Los Angeles real estate lawyer. People in Miller's situation have little choice but to keep jumping through each legal hoop that arises, he said.

"There's no magic wand," Wagenseller said. "You just have to wade through the process."

Miller's lawyer, Lisa Rosenthal, told me the tenants, identified in court documents as David and Paula Caplan, wasted no time in running the usual playbook — a motion to quash, a demurrer, a bankruptcy filing.

Finally, Rosenthal said, a judge ruled in January that the tenants had to go. They challenged the ruling, thus allowing them to remain in the house.

The Caplans didn't return my call for comment. But Ken Carlson, an Idyllwild lawyer who said he's advising the couple, told me the pair "aren't just trying to postpone the inevitable."

He said the tenants are simply challenging "technical defects" in Miller's paperwork, such as not including the days and hours that he'd be available to receive payments.

"This is an example of a landlord accusing tenants of using dilatory tactics to cover their own mistakes," Carlson said.

Miller sees it differently. "They're gaming the system," he said. "But it's a system that allows itself to be gamed."

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for next week.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 01, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Eviction system gets gamed" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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