Every weekday, poor people in Los Angeles are herded by the dozens into a downtown courtroom so they can be evicted. The process goes something like this: A judge calls the day’s roster of cases, and landlord and tenant attorneys start haggling over how much time and money it will take to move the tenant out. When horse-trading and judicial pressure don’t convince the tenant to leave his home, the case goes to trial. If the landlord wins, the tenant is evicted. If the tenant wins, the landlord can wait a few days, sue again and haul the tenant back into court. If the tenant wins a second time, the landlord can again wait a few days and restart the process. In other words, sooner or later, the landlord almost always wins.
Eviction proceedings in California are also frighteningly expedited. Under state law, a landlord who sues his tenant for eviction has the right to go to trial within 20 days after the tenant files an answer. Meanwhile, if a tenant wants to sue his landlord for failing to make repairs, or not accommodating a disability, or illegally increasing rent, or even stalking and harassment, the tenant has to wait many times longer — up to a year or more — before getting a day in court.
In sum, California eviction law creates a Kafkaesque process that is driving working Angelenos out of their neighborhoods or worse — onto the streets.
The problem is one of incentives. In a housing market where rents are skyrocketing, it makes financial sense for landlords to hit tenants with repeated waves of trumped-up eviction lawsuits — even when tenants are meeting the obligations of their lease. For the cost of only a few hundred dollars in filing fees, landlords can boot a lease holder and find new renters. He can then charge the newcomers far more than the law allows for a rent increase on a longtime tenant.
The poorer the tenants, the faster they’ll capitulate in the face of litigation. If they can’t afford an attorney, and if they decide to defend themselves, they are likely to lose. UCLA law professor Gary Blasi studied outcomes for tenants facing exorbitant rent increases who fought eviction without legal help. In 151 randomly sampled cases, the tenants lost every time. Even if a tenant were to mount a winning defense, a landlord could endlessly refile until the tenant throws in the towel.
Consider Roberto Perez, a 45-year-old roofer and father of six. Roberto and his family live in a building in unincorporated East Los Angeles that was purchased in January 2016 by Manhattan Manor, a holding company of Winstar Properties. A few weeks after it bought the building, Winstar raised the tenants’ monthly rent from $1,250 to $2,000 without making any renovations that would justify a $2,000-per-month price tag.
We have represented Roberto in eviction court four times. In the first case, a jury determined that the Perez family was not obligated to pay increased rent because the deplorable condition of the apartment made it legally uninhabitable. Months later, in a second case, a judge determined that the family was again entitled to a rent reduction — this time of 50% — because their apartment was still uninhabitable when the increased rent came due. But no matter how many times the Perez family wins, Winstar can flood them with eviction suits until they are too exhausted to continue. They are currently being sued for the fifth time in less than two years.
When landlords win, tenants often end up on the streets. A 2007 study showed that in Los Angeles County, eviction was second only to job loss as a cause of homelessness; in a 2013 report from the city of Los Angeles, eviction was the primary reason families were unhoused. It rivals alcohol and drug addiction as a contributing factor to one of Los Angeles’ most pressing problems.
In the midst of a statewide housing crisis, and with landlords filing 50,000 eviction cases in Los Angeles County alone last year, California has a moral responsibility to rectify the power imbalance between landlords and their tenants. Locally, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors could shift the dynamic immediately by funding free legal defense for every poor county resident sued for eviction, as New York City promised to do last year. But real change needs to come at the state level, where lawmakers can vote to slow down the eviction process and protect tenants from waves of meritless eviction actions.
Our eviction laws are antiquated, dangerous and inhumane. We must demand an expansion of tenant protections that will keep economically vulnerable people in safe housing. Tenants’ rights are at least as important as landlords’ privileges.