Case by case, legal aid attorneys battle displacement in the Bay Area
Though we’re all understandably consumed by the news at the national level, the last election also came with consequences for the Bay Area locally—especially for the region’s ongoing housing crisis.
On local ballots last November, a lot of cities pushed for new laws to protect tenants against the rising tide of expensive rent and displacement. Some cities adopted rent control and fair eviction ordinances for the first time; others saw similar measures defeated.
But tenant protection rules are only as strong as their enforcement. That’s why courthouses are often the frontlines in the battle between property rights and housing rights.
Head to the Hayward Courthouse on any Wednesday and you’ll see the fight get personal. This is where renters from all of Alameda County come with their hopes of beating an eviction. This week, there are 48 cases, all heard on the same day.
The hallway is packed and tense with anticipation. Lawyers haggle with each other, defendants look through worn folders of paper.
Tenant Vanessa Bulnes stands elegantly in black, cooling herself with a painted fan. She’s from the South, but has lived in Oakland for the last 30 years. She and her husband owned their own home for 20 of those years, until the foreclosure crisis. For the last four years they’ve rented a house that Bulnes operated her child care business out of. But then she discovered there was lead in the soil where the kids played. So she lost her child care license.
“The agency refused to renew my contract which meant I lost my income. So, of course, if I don't have income I can't pay my rent and the next thing is eviction. So here we are today in eviction court,” Bulnes says.
Bulnes hopes she can get the judge to give her some leeway by arguing that the property owner should have cleaned up the lead instead of ignoring her for almost three years.
A lot of evictions are like this, not black and white, both parties having breached the lease in some way. Bulnes says her property manager was in charge of 1,800 other units.
“It’s a corporation that I feel is out of touch with the communities,” says Bulnes, “They see us as dollar signs so when situations like this arise, we're at their mercy.”
Tenants like Bulnes can feel helpless, but in Oakland and some other cities there are protections in place for renters. For example, rules about what constitutes “just cause” for eviction. Plenty of tenants don’t know the rules and just leave when they get the notice to evict.
Bulnes is fighting it in court, though, because she has a “low bono” attorney defending her. Lots of places are boosting their legal aid funding as displacement gets worse. San Francisco, for example, doubled it’s eviction defense budget last year. Today there are a handful of these low bono lawyers here at the courthouse helping tenants navigate the law, working case after case. Tenants’ rights advocates might say it’s God’s work. But not everyone would agree.
Exploiting the court system?
Property manager Jonathan Flemming manages 200 units, all mom and pop landlords, a lot of local Oaklanders like him.
“You could come in here today and say, ‘Hey, I didn't pay my rent because a dinosaur come through and destroyed the property’ and somebody would help you in here to stall it out, and make it so you didn't have to pay the landlord.”
He thinks some tenants exploit the court system to dodge lawful evictions. As in: find any little thing you can use against your landlord in court.
Flemming calls it the world of blackmail. “You have a lot of people saying, ‘The tenant said that he saw something.'—maybe the windows leak, or the fridge light is out— 'so he shouldn't have to pay his rent for the last 6 months’.”
Flemming says that’s what lawyers are here for, to find “slick loopholes to help out people that don't need that help.”
If Flemming’s landlords don’t get their rent when they need it, they go to foreclosure, he points out. “Owning real estate is not a welfare business.”
It’s not. And, if you’re a landlord that treats it like it is—if you put other people’s needs over your own profit—your business will fail. Over the years as a property manager, Flemming says he’s lost 3 or 4 buildings this way. On the other hand—when I ask how many total evictions he’s done, he says too many to count.
No contest when it comes to stakes
Down the hall, I meet legal aid attorney Joe Colangelo. He admits he doesn’t enjoy going up against mom and pop landlords.
Colangelo says he’s had landlords who, for example, “cry, literally beg with me, and tell me they got a mortgage to pay and they took it over from their parent who passed away and they don’t want to lose it.”
Even so, there’s no contest in his mind, when it comes to stakes. He says landlords are entitled to fight for their business and poor people are entitled to fight for their homes.
“The consequences for them is not the numbers adding up for the month in terms of what they got from their properties, it’s where are they going to go after this,” says Colangelo. “Ultimately I'm dealing with someone who's telling me they have no place to go and if they're forced to move in two weeks or a month they're going to be homeless.”
Mom and pop landlords are out there. But, the reality is, the majority of owners that Colangelo faces are corporations.Investment companies bought up huge swaths of low rent housing in the East Bay after the foreclosure crisis. And they tend to evict more often than mom and pops.
Colangelo says that even with increased help from lawyers like him, corporate real estate is winning the fight against poor people in the Bay Area.
“The problem is big and it’s growing,” he says, “We are turning people away that need help and it’s only because we’re limited by the resources we have.”
Evictions on the rise
Colangelo works for the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland—their clients are all low income, and they’re 85-90% Black and Latino. His clients, like all people in the area who aren’t rich, often leave their city after an eviction, because if you can barely afford the spot you locked down ten years ago, or even one year ago, you definitely can’t afford the prices on the market right now.
Colangelo believes that without organizations like his, “it would be a stampede of people of color leaving and we’re all that stands in the way.”
Eviction is not a new phenomenon. But now that the Bay Area real estate market is so hot, it’s happening a lot more in some neighborhoods. In cities with rent control, owners aren’t allowed to hike rents much on current tenants, but if they get a vacancy they can charge the next person as much as they’ll pay. So there’s a big cash reward if you can find a way to evict.
“Every prop manager is looking at their properties and thinking ‘Everything around me is going up, the place next to me was renting for a thousand and now it's renting for two thousand, [so] I'm stuck with this tenant who's locked in at a lower deal,’” says Colangelo. “So I'm finding that they're less likely to forgive minor breaches or they’re looking for ways to just free up their units any way they can.”
But some of the tactics owners use to do this are less legal than others. Some real estate companies have built their business models on buying buildings and finding savvy ways to evict.
One way they do it is by exploiting the loopholes in the law that allow for no-fault evictions, such as the Ellis Act, which is supposed to be for owners who want to sell their building and get out of the rental business. Colangelo says another loophole is showing signs of being exploited: the Owner Move-In Rule. It’s supposed to let owners or their family members move into the unit themselves, but it’s exploited when another landlord takes over ownership rather than an owner-occupier.
“This specific loophole to evict someone when they've been doing everything right, they've been paying their rent and abiding by the rules,” says Colangelo, “they used to never see and now you're seeing it four or five times a month in these different cities.”
People and companies get away with exploiting eviction loopholes because rules that restrict landlords are like speed limits. There’s nothing really stopping people but the fear of getting caught in court. So, funding legal aid is like putting more cops on the highway to enforce the laws.
There are ways to strengthen tenant protection laws at the state level that some advocates argue would stem the need for legal defense. But for the time being, the battles happen in the courthouse, eviction case by eviction case.
This story is part of KALW's series about preserving the Bay Area's affordable housing. Much of the housing debate focuses on new developments. But what can be done to help people who already live here? The series explores some possible answers.