A dark, empty courtroom, with blue seats facing the judge's bench. A large screen stands to the side, and U.S. and California flags in the front.
Every eviction case in Alameda County comes through Hayward Hall of Justice's Department 511. Credit: Amir Aziz

“Inside Eviction Court” is a two-part series taking an in-depth look at how the end of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium is playing out in an Alameda County courthouse. Tomorrow, we feature the renters, landlords, and lawyers in the thick of things. 

The landlord sat on the left side of the courtroom, the tenant on the right. They leaned forward in their seats, anxious to sway the judge.

“I’ve bled from that building,” complained the landlord, a real estate investor who’s bought and sold over 100 Bay Area properties.

The tenant hadn’t paid rent for more than three years, he said. 

The eviction was a done deal. The renter was served the lawsuit, called an “unlawful detainer,” soon after Alameda County’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium expired at the end of April. Because she didn’t respond within five days, as required, she “defaulted” — the landlord won the case. The hearing on a July morning at the Hayward courthouse, where all eviction cases in the county are handled, was to decide something else.

Just before the tenant was due to leave her home, she filed a request for a “stay” — asking for another 15 days to collect her things and find another place, so long as she paid the rent for those two weeks. The landlord had balked, accusing her of “taking advantage of the situation” by prolonging the eviction at the last minute. In a petition to the judge, he argued that his tenant could stay with her family, or in a hotel. He had crews coming the very next day to renovate the unit, he said.

“This is the perfect example of what went wrong with the COVID policy, right there in front of you,” the landlord told the judge, referring to the moratoriums that prohibited evictions throughout the pandemic, even if a tenant couldn’t or wouldn’t pay rent.

Neither the tenant nor the landlord had a lawyer representing them, and things got personal. Despite admonitions from court staff, the property owner addressed his renter directly, instead of speaking only to the judge, spurring a he-said-she-said bickering battle.

“If you were working the past four years, why didn’t you pay your rent? Why don’t you tell the judge?” the landlord asked the tenant. “If we stay here another five minutes, she’ll lie another five times!” 

Others in the courtroom—several landlords, a couple of tenants, and a few lawyers waiting silently for their cases to be called—shifted uncomfortably, widening their eyes at each other.

The judge wasn’t moved by the landlord. “It is my general position that on failure-to-pay cases, if somebody wants to post for a short stay, I tend to grant them, and I think that’s actually consistent with what the law expects,” she said. She gave the tenant her 15 days and told her to pay the $816 for that period downstairs.

“When the check bounces, what are you going to do?” the deflated landlord called out.

“For the record, I’ve never given him a bounced check,” the tenant responded.

“Yeah, because you haven’t paid at all!” he yelled.

“Sir!” the court’s clerk said. “Stop speaking to her.” 

Eviction lawsuits skyrocketed in May, June

A judge wearing judicial robes sits in her chair on the courthouse bench. She has long red hair and red glasses.
Judge Victoria Kolakowski, elected to Alameda County Superior Court in 2010, got the evictions assignment mid-pandemic. Credit: Amir Aziz

The exchange between the landlord and his tenant exposed a level of vitriol not typically seen in Hayward Hall of Justice’s Department 511. Most of the time, property owners and renters have attorneys speaking for them, and discussions have a procedural tone. The business often boils down to whether to continue a hearing for two weeks or three, or whether this-or-that tenant is in compliance with such-and-such judgment. 

In other words, eviction court is often boring, even though its outcomes are high-stakes for everyone involved.

But the parties in this case revealed the bitter thoughts and feelings likely hiding behind many a reserved utterance of “Our client is interested in settling” and a polite “Thank you, Your Honor.” 

After the Alameda County eviction moratorium expired, eviction cases exploded. After three years where lawsuit numbers never reached above 100 a month, there were 557 filings in May.

Now, the three cities that kept eviction bans in place longer — Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro — are sunsetting their policies too, and another spike is expected.

“The question was, are we going to get hit with a tsunami?” said Judge Victoria Kolakowski. “And we have been.”

But she said a “gigantic flood” would be a more apt metaphor. For every one case resolved in her courtroom, dozens more are being filed. 

For the thousands of individuals and families facing eviction, the outcomes determine whether they can continue making lunches for their children in their kitchens, or whether they’ll sleep in a tent the next night, or whether they’ll finally be forced to move out of the Bay Area altogether. Tenant advocates have been warning for years about the potential for a mass increase in homelessness and displacement when the moratoriums end.

Landlords, some of whom are struggling to pay their mortgages or property taxes, say the crisis is of the government’s making. A jump in evictions is logical, they say, after three years without recourse against non-paying renters.

To better understand what’s happening with the end of the pandemic-era eviction bans, The Oaklandside attended dozens of eviction court hearings on Zoom and in person, interviewed attorneys for both tenants and landlords, and analyzed court data.

The end of the moratoriums has brought a sense of relief to some property owners, while others remain frustrated with the pace of the legal system. For many renters, it’s the start of a new period of upheaval in their lives.

The expiration of the policies has also caused a massive increase in workload for the county’s sole eviction court judge and her small staff, as well as for attorneys on both sides. Not only are they dealing with cases that will change lives, but they’re also tasked with answering unprecedented legal questions at a rapid clip.

Welcome to Alameda County eviction court in 2023. 

One judge sees it all

There are handwritten sticky notes all over Judge Victoria Kolakowski’s computer. One simply says, “Breathe.”

It’s a reminder that she can’t see enough, as the one and only Alameda County Superior Court judge handling unlawful detainers. Kolakowski was assigned this role in 2021. It’s not a glamorous position, but she felt called to the task because she has a history with eviction cases.

“I knew I wasn’t going anywhere until after we got through this,” she told The Oaklandside. That could mean she’s here for a while.

“Every week, I stop and go, ‘Has the wave crested?’” the judge said. “My guess is that we’re not going to see numbers like usual until 2024.”

Before the pandemic, the county typically saw 300 to 400 unlawful detainers monthly. In June, there were 772

July saw a drop down to 503, according to the court. So perhaps the initial wave has reached its peak. But the numbers so far don’t include Oakland—the largest city in the county, and one that’s majority renter. Tenant attorneys and court staff are bracing for another surge, while struggling to emerge from the recent one.

Kolakowski spoke with The Oaklandside in her office after a recent busy day of proceedings.

“This morning is what worries me,” she said, eating lunch from a takeout container. “I had to rush people today, and that’s not normally what I do.”

As she spoke, she glanced at her computer, where requests were piling up. Another renter wanted a stay. Multiple tenants hoped the court would waive the fees for filing documents. Each day, Kolakowski has to make dozens of judgment calls both off the bench and on. These days, there can be some 40 hearings or 30 court trials (where the judge, instead of a jury, hears arguments and makes a decision) scheduled for one day.

Parties can also request a jury trial, which gets assigned out to another department. There’s a problem, though: the court is so over-booked that it’s essentially impossible to find a room for one right now. 

In the background, Kolakowski’s sole clerk and other court staff “are working really hard,” drowning in paperwork and emails and last-minute requests, she said. “And yes, there have been glitches, because they’re human beings.”

That morning, a landlord had shown up to court for the second time–only to be told, also for the second time, that the court hadn’t sent a requisite notice alerting tenants that a hearing was scheduled.

“You had said the notice would definitely be sent out,” complained the landlord, not masking her frustration.

“I’m so terribly sorry,” Kolakowski responded.

“I’ve tried to be the lightning rod,” she told The Oaklandside later. “If people have problems, blame me, complain to me, rather than have it blow over on everybody else. It’s overwhelming for everybody and we’re all doing our best.”

Genealogist, enforcer, customer service rep

Judge Kolakowski sits at her computer in a busy office, where there are messy stacks of documents, and a small transgender flag.
Each day, several requests for stays and fee waivers come through the system. Kolakowski reviews them between hearings. Credit: Amir Aziz

In some ways, Kolakowski is not your stereotypical judge. She makes wry jokes, thinks out loud, and gently teases attorneys, telling them their bowties look “snazzy.” 

“I am not the most formal person in the world,” she said. “Maybe I should be stuffier. But this is who I am. And I’m the same way on the bench.”

Kolakowski became the first openly transgender trial court judge of general jurisdiction when she was elected in Alameda County in 2010. She’s passionate about LGBTQ+ representation in the legal field and beyond, and when she’s not in the courtroom her calendar is packed with speaking engagements around the world. Her office walls are lined with awards and plaques. 

She’s also an expert in genealogy and obtained a flurry of master’s degrees in the 80s and 90s: biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, divinity.

In other ways, Kolakowski is a traditional judge. She has a very judicial take on her duty, and her limitations.

“I’m here to enforce the laws,” she said. “I’m not here to establish housing policy.” 

Despite some attorneys thinking she favors one side or another, Kolakowski denies she has allegiances. 

“There’s a hard element to this kind of work, which is that there are a lot of people who are hurting,” she said. “And not everybody would agree with me about this, but that’s on both sides. I don’t view one group of people as being awful and the other side as saintly. You have thousands of individual situations.” 

“As a judicial officer, she is like a customer service agent,” said Alana Grice Conner, an attorney who represents landlords, about Kolakowski. “She has to make sure that people who come into her courtroom feel heard—it may be the only time that litigant is in court. She doesn’t have the luxury of being dismissive or ignoring their concerns.”

Kolakowski tries to lend an empathetic ear to the cross-section of the county that appears in front of her. 

“Sometimes it just helps for them to be able to talk to somebody like me and say, ‘This is awful. I shouldn’t have to do this,’” she said. “And I’ll go, ‘Yeah, I definitely hear you. And I understand your frustration.’”

While Kolakowski doesn’t write housing policy, she is tasked with interpreting it. “There are some very important legal questions coming up for the first time,” she said. The end of the moratoriums has complicated long-standing housing law. 

What’s required of the landlord or the tenant when an eviction case that was filed in January 2020 comes to court for the first time three and half years later? What are the implications of the nuanced differences in each city’s eviction moratoriums once the policies end?

Some tenant attorneys, incredulous at how Kolakowski has been answering these kinds of questions, have appealed her decisions—hoping to set a precedent governing how the next wave of unlawful detainers will be decided. 

At a hearing in July, the judge remarked to a tenant attorney that she expected to get formally challenged on the ruling she was poised to make.

“It’s your right and perhaps your obligation,” she told the East Bay Community Law Center lawyer. “If I’m getting things wrong I take no issue with that.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...