Question: My family has lived in an apartment for the last five years with no problems, but to our astonishment, we were just served with eviction papers. In the past, we signed a new lease every year. This year when our lease expired, we were told that management had decided not to offer us a new one-year lease. We were also told that any rent we offered would not be accepted, and that we needed to immediately vacate our home of five years. When we didn't vacate, we received the eviction papers.
Is this proper? My understanding is that once a lease expires we automatically become month-to-month tenants. I also thought that monthly tenants were entitled to either thirty or sixty days' notice to vacate before any eviction case could be filed. Can we safely ignore the eviction lawsuit or defend it on the grounds that a proper notice to vacate was not issued?
Answer: Under no circumstance should you ignore the fact that an eviction case, officially called an unlawful detainer, has been filed or assume that you have a valid defense based on the lack of a proper notice to vacate.
It is important for all tenants to note that there are significant differences between fixed-term leases (for a year or some other fixed term), and month-to-month rental agreements. An annual lease like yours terminates at the end of one year. You have no automatic right to an additional sixty-day notice to vacate. Your duty to vacate is implied by the existence of a lease, especially if the lease itself does not contain notice language.
Specifically, your right to occupy terminates on the day your lease expires, unless one of two events happens: Your landlord can accept rent after expiration of the lease and thereby convert you to a monthly tenant or you can sign a new lease. Neither of these events has occurred; in fact, your manager specifically refused to accept rent for the month following your lease termination, and management is also unwilling for whatever reason to sign a new lease.
Unless you live in a jurisdiction that requires "just cause" for terminating a lease, management did not need to have a reason to refuse to renew, unless they were motivated by an illegal reason such as discrimination. You are therefore considered to be a "holdover" and management would appear justified in pursuing an eviction through the court system.
Some landlords will send a courtesy notice 60 days prior to the expiration of a lease to offer tenants an opportunity to renew the lease and to notify tenants of any new lease terms such as a rent increase, but this type of notice is not a legal requirement. We would therefore suggest that you contact management or their attorney as soon as possible and try to negotiate a move-out date in exchange for dismissal of the eviction case.
You may also be responsible for arranging to pay for the days you overstayed the lease term and landlord's attorney fees as well, if provided for in the lease agreement. Remember that you have only five days to file an answer to the unlawful detainer case. If you fail to file the answer, the landlord can obtain a default judgment, depriving you of any right to appear in court.
For more information, contact your local Superior Court Self-Help Center, a local fair housing or mediation program, or Project Sentinel at (888) 324-7468, or visit our website at http://www.housing.org.
Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.