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Dubious Evictions Become an Issue as Vacancy Rates Fall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s called “sewer service.”

A landlord or process server draws up eviction papers but doesn’t deliver them, as the law requires.

The tenant then gets tossed out of the home with little or no notice. The old ploy, a holdover from the days when shady process servers and landlords threw documents in the sewers, has emerged as a major issue in an era of record low vacancy rates and sky-high rents across Southern California.

Complaints about sewer service number in the thousands, despite court efforts to make the eviction process more efficient. Landlord groups say the problem is exaggerated, just another scheme by tenants for living rent free.

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“The landlord is really a sitting duck,” said Alan Dauger, an owner of several apartment buildings in Orange County. “There are so many delaying tactics that these tenants use. And this is just one of them.”

But housing advocates say the abuse runs rampant, especially in immigrant and low-income neighborhoods where tenants have limited means to contest evictions. Some cases find their way to court, where tenants try to prove that they did not get the notices.

Eviction actions are almost always successful and number in the thousands annually, both in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The clock starts ticking when a tenant receives a hand-delivered notice from a process server. Five days later, the period for most legal challenges slams shut. Sheriff’s deputies arrive to carry out the eviction as soon as one week later.

The notices are meant to give tenants time to decide a course of action, be it to mount a court challenge, relocate, or pay the rent.

It’s impossible to know how common sewer service cases are because the courts don’t keep records on such eviction challenges. But at the Los Angeles County Courthouse alone, officials handle more than a dozen such cases a week.

Landlords usually win. But on occasion, judges believe the tenants and grant them more time to challenge an eviction.

That’s what happened to Irene Garcia Arevalo, who won her case after a judge found that her landlord had never filed proof that she had been served.

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“I knew I didn’t receive the notice,” said Arevalo, who pays $650 for her two-bedroom apartment in South-Central Los Angeles. Her landlord accused her of not keeping up with her rent. “I was home when they said they served me.”

Apartment owners maintain that they are often the victims in such cases, forced to go into court by people who have already been warned that they owe back rent or are violating their rental contracts.

While that is sometimes true, one Los Angeles Superior Court judge who heard numerous such cases in the mid-1990s said some complaints clearly have merit.

Judge Robert L. Hess said he often referred problem process servers to county officials for potential discipline. In court, he said, he often grilled process servers under oath, and once ordered an attorney to stop using one who had a history of complaints.

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“I did consider it a problem,” Hess said. "[Tenants] are entitled to an opportunity to be heard, and since they only have a limited time to respond, that makes the notice very critical.”

Advocates say the landlords often abuse the process by employing process servers who don’t deliver the documents and then submit fraudulent proof of service to the court. Removals that can take more than a month to complete if opposed can be finished in days after an eviction has been ordered.

And even though courts now send warning letters independent of the eviction notices to tell tenants of their legal standing, some say the warnings often don’t arrive in time. Orange County housing advocates are seeking state legislation that would require courts to speed up this independent notification service.


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