This is part two of “Inside Eviction Court,” a series taking an in-depth look at how the end of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium is playing out in Alameda County. Part one featured the sole judge handling these cases.
The clock starts ticking for a tenant as soon as their landlord tapes an eviction notice to their door.
read part one of our ‘inside eviction court’ series
With pandemic eviction moratoriums over, cases have shot up and the court is overwhelmed. Meet the sole judge handling the influx.
The notice, the first step in the legal process of carrying out an eviction, may give a renter as little as three days to “pay or quit.” That means hand over the rent that’s owed — or move out. If they do neither? That’s when the landlord can file a lawsuit, called an unlawful detainer, and serve the tenant.
The clock starts again. The tenant now has five business days to file an “answer,” a document where they spell out their defense. If they don’t, the landlord can go to court requesting a “default” judgment permitting eviction. But if the renter makes the cut to respond, the two sides will then try to reach a settlement by a particular date. Otherwise, the case will go to a trial.
As COVID-19 eviction bans expired in Alameda County and its cities this spring and summer, local landlords began sprinting to court, filing hundreds of lawsuits each month, and sometimes 20 or 30 in one day. The renters on the receiving end of these cases are scrambling to find representation, and lawyers on both sides are overwhelmed with requests.
We have spent weeks since the moratorium ended attending dozens of eviction court hearings and analyzing data. We also talked to many of the people who find themselves in Hayward Hall of Justice’s Department 511 — the judge who makes the rulings, but also the tenants, the landlords, and the attorneys tasked with seeking justice on their behalf.
Tenants are lining up for help
“A lot of folks that don’t get involved with an attorney early get defaulted,” said David Hall, managing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, which is contracted with the county, Oakland, and several other cities to provide free eviction defense.
The organization will help any renter file an answer to a lawsuit, but the lawyers can’t always represent the tenant throughout the case.
“The numbers of cases for the next months are going to be mind-bogglingly huge,” said Hall in June. “We’re not going to come close to being able to take every case we want to.”
Bracing for the surge, Centro Legal has compiled “self-help” resources for tenants representing themselves in an eviction case.
In San Francisco, a “right to counsel” law passed by voters in 2018 guarantees tenants legal representation in eviction proceedings—similar to how defendants in criminal cases get public defenders. Before, landlords in the city were represented by lawyers at far greater rates than their renters. The same sort of guarantee doesn’t exist in Alameda County, but organizations like Centro Legal receive public funding to support more renters than they could otherwise.
At the Eviction Defense Center, another Oakland-based organization that represents tenants, staff and clients are feeling the squeeze.
Renters have been lining up in the narrow hallway at EDC’s office at Frank Ogawa Plaza, waiting for a few minutes with one of the five lawyers. It’s a scene unlike anything the organization witnessed before the pandemic, said Peter Selawsky, a lawyer who’s been working there for a decade.
On a Wednesday in late July, families and individuals walked out of the building every few minutes, some clutching folders containing the answer document they’d need to bring. Others rushed to the courthouse.
Waiting their turn in the hallway was an Alameda renter facing eviction over nonpayment of rent. Before COVID, they shared a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate without issue. As soon as the pandemic got underway, everything went haywire.
In May 2020, the roommate moved out. In June, the renter had a baby. It was an “incredibly stressful” time in the tenant’s life and the world at large — not a safe or easy moment for a single parent to try to find a new person to move in with them. They fell behind on rent.
When COVID-19 rental assistance became available, the tenant, who didn’t want to be named in this story, applied and was able to pay off their debt. But then the cycle started again. Meanwhile, a flood in the building sent sewage flowing into the apartments, they said. Renters were displaced to hotels during repairs, and when this tenant and their child returned, their furniture was all out of place and a strong chemical scent emanated from the floors.
“Very soon after that, my health started declining tremendously,” they said, receiving a diagnosis of a functional neurological disorder. A car accident made things worse.
When they received an eviction notice in May, they sought more financial assistance to pay back the landlord. The organization they contacted offered mediation instead, which the renter accepted, believing a “restorative approach” made more sense than a legal process. But the session was unsuccessful.
“They wanted me out in 30 days and $12,000,” they said.
The renter said they’re loath to portray themselves as a “victim” but believe they sit at the “crossroads of several intersectional issues” — health, parenting, the financial system, “a need for community support and a lack of that with the pandemic.”
They paid off the first notice but got another in July. The Eviction Defense Center helped them file a response, but what comes next is unclear.
‘Brutal’ cases require more than the court can provide
An eviction doesn’t just upend a renter’s life the month it happens; it’s a mark that follows them far into the future, showing up on background checks landlords run, and even affecting credit scores in some cases.
“From our perspective, a tenant having an eviction on their record is pretty terrible — it makes it hard to get housing,” said Hall.
Nonpayment cases are the most common. While the county and city of Oakland’s moratoriums said renters couldn’t be evicted for not paying rent during the pandemic, they still owed the money — it became a debt. That fact sometimes got lost.
“There’s been this general climate in the community of, it’s OK to pay your rent late,” Selawsky said. While some buildings went on rent strikes early in the pandemic, and some people decided to skip bills, Selawsky said it’s “so, so rare” that someone is trying to “cheat a landlord,” as many claim their tenants are.
“Between incomplete and wrong information out there, and just a lot of people running into medical emergencies and not being able to pay bills for the first time — those are situations that lead to these nonpayment-of-rent cases,” Selawsky said. “Some people are hit with a ton of bricks” when they find out they owe their back rent.
“We’re concerned that some of these debts are untenable. We’re concerned about mass displacement,” he said.
During the three-year moratorium, some evictions were still permitted. These included evictions where the tenant threatened the health or safety of neighbors or the property owner, and evictions if the landlord wanted to stop renting the building altogether.
That meant the few cases that made it through were “explicitly brutal,” Hall said. Evictions over allegations of violence, or mental health crises.
“You have people who need help, but we’re not a social services agency,” said Judge Victoria Kolakowski, the sole judge assigned to handle eviction cases in Alameda County.
In early July, the judge considered a “stay” request from a 61-year-old man being evicted from the duplex unit where he’d lived for 23 years. The stay would allow him a few more weeks to move out, so long as he paid the rent for that extended period.
The landlord said the tenant hadn’t paid rent in a year and lived in squalor: “He hasn’t thrown garbage out for maybe a year, it smells so bad. The other unit is complaining.” He handed the judge a photo of the debris, as well as an estimate he’d gotten from a junk collector apparently pricing the clear-out of the unit at $7,700.
The tenant acknowledged the conditions were bad. He said he could get his life back together if only he had more time.
“I’m barely alive,” said the renter, explaining that he goes to dialysis appointments three times a week. “I’ve been rehabilitating. I’m on food stamps. My family is deceased.”
The judge denied the stay. The law requires that the tenant pay for the extended period in the apartment, and the tenant’s disability check wasn’t coming in until later that month.
“I find the situation frustrating as well,” Kołakowski said to the tenant. She reconsidered her words. “For me, it’s frustrating. For you, it’s disastrous. You need to have a way to live after this.”
The tenant pleaded for help. Kolakowski and her clerk whispered to each other.
“Is there anyone at the dialysis unit that can help you?” she asked him. “Have you been connected to any legal services?”
“As hard as it is for us or judges, it’s harder for the tenants being evicted,” Selawsky said. “The more volume the court gets, there’s an understandable impulse to pick up the pace,” and individuals may not get the attention they need.
The conditions are affecting the tenor in the courtroom.
“There’s more desperation on the tenants’ side and more bitterness on the landlords’,” Selawsky said. “Eviction court is always crazy—it’s always fast, full of angry people, and people making wild claims, so it’s hard for me to say what’s normal. But absolutely right now it’s more emotionally fraught on all sides.”
A program that supports low-income landlords
Just as tenants are lining up for legal assistance, landlords are knocking at their attorneys’ doors.
“It’s been about 40 months of living with these restrictions on property owners,” said Angelica Montenegro, landlord attorney. “I’m not surprised there’s been an increase in evictions.”
In the months before the moratoriums expired, large groups of landlords protested at public meetings, in some cases disrupting them. They called for an end to the policies and a return of the money they’re owed—sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Montenegro’s firm began receiving anticipatory calls before the moratorium officially expired. She represents clients in Contra Costa County too, where their moratorium is ancient history: it ended in 2021. The “bottleneck” in Alameda County’s Department 511 doesn’t exist there, where an eviction case can reach a settlement or judgment within three months, Montenegro said. In Alameda County, it can take twice that long.
“With the delays, the court is currently experiencing…as a property owner, that’s three or six more months of unpaid rent or nuisance from a tenant,” said Alana Grice Conner, a landlord attorney. She works at the same firm as Montenegro, representing paying clients, but also volunteers with Legal Access Alameda, which assists low-income landlords pro-bono.
“Often the image of a property owner is someone twisting a handlebar mustache and laughing maniacally about kicking out people on the street,” said Grice Conner. “That’s just not the reality of the people we serve. I don’t think we make light of the risk of a person becoming unhoused, but the kinds of property owners we encounter are the ones who are teetering on the brink themselves.”
The program is funded by the 12–year-old Shriver Project, where legal services organizations receive grants from the California Judicial Council to provide free representation to low-income residents in various areas of the law. In Alameda County, Centro Legal provides the tenant services and Legal Access the landlord representation. Clients must not make above double the federal poverty line.
Legal Access only sees a small number of clients each month, but it’s growing, the organization said. There’s an announcement before the day gets underway in Department 511, offering on-demand help to unrepresented low-income landlords and tenants. Legal Access is limited to providing “day of” services to property owners who are already in court.
“A really common profile of clients we see is someone who’s bought or inherited a home 50 years ago. They’re now living on a fixed income, like Social Security, and the house is falling apart,” said Tiela Chalmers, CEO of the Alameda County Bar Association (Legal Access is its pro-bono arm). “They take on a tenant in an in-law unit in order to pay for repairs, then the tenant doesn’t pay rent. Now they’re risking foreclosure.”
Montenegro said many of her clients don’t qualify for the service but can’t exactly afford a lawyer on retainer. There’s her nurse-client, for example, whose sole tenant hasn’t paid rent in three years, according to the lawyer.
“She was an essential worker, front of the line, and now she has a tenant taking advantage of her,” Montenegro said.
The idea of the Shriver Project is to put both sides on the same footing and help clients understand what their rights are, or aren’t.
“I’ve never had an unrepresented litigant understand what ‘discovery’ is,” said Bianca Torres, an attorney with Legal Access. “And that the [eviction] notice has to meet certain requirements, be delivered in a certain way.”
Often, the tenant side will zero in on those issues, and the case gets thrown out.
Most landlords settle with their renters
If you attend even a couple of days of eviction court, you’ll quickly get to know the cast of characters. It’s generally the same handful of lawyers on each side, paired up in different combinations for each case. There’s a sense of collegiality between the sides and even respect — although it’s also clear that some individuals can’t stand each other.
In the before-times, the tenant and landlord attorneys would meet in the hallway outside the courtroom, hashing it out all day, popping back in to tell the judge when they had a settlement agreement. Now most elect to appear on Zoom, one little boxed face telling another boxed face that they’ll call their cell later in the day.
Settlements generally follow two models, Judge Kolakowski said. There’s “pay to stay” (a payment plan and behavioral rules for the renter) or “cash for keys” (the tenant agrees to leave, with a payout).
Kolakowski was worried there’d be so much pent-up animosity and impatience on the landlords’ side that they’d refuse to settle anymore, demanding trials. She’s relieved that’s largely not been the case.
“The tools available to me at this court are limited,” she said. She can approve or toss out an eviction, but can’t come up with the nuanced terms that satisfy an individual tenant and landlord. “There’s a lot of reasons to settle these matters amicably.”
Along with the people who own just one or two properties, there are plenty of big banks, corporate landlords, and even affordable housing non-profits that appear regularly in Department 511, trying to kick out tenants.
Chuck Alfonzo represents the spectrum.
“I’m not a person who says big landlords are evil,” he said. “They should be entitled to the same protections.”
Before he files a lawsuit, Alfonzo said he tries to resolve the issue with the tenant. He mentioned a “large landlord” client of his who worked out payment plans with renters who lost income during COVID-19. Almost 100% cooperated with her in applying for assistance and paying what they could.
“There are people who legitimately lost jobs and had COVID, but usually those were the people lining up to work with the landlord,” he said.
When a situation turns into an eviction case, Alfonzo has a particular perspective on the potential outcome.
“It’s true that if somebody loses their home, they may be homeless, and I sympathize,” he said. But “that’s a societal issue. I don’t believe it’s the responsibility of the property owner to shoulder that. They have a contract, and their agreement was providing habitable housing in exchange for payment.”
When his cases go to trial, Alfonzo goes so far as to file a motion preventing the tenant from saying they’ll become homeless if evicted. But he said he also rejects clients if he thinks they have “improper motives” for pursuing eviction.
A 20-year veteran of eviction court, Alfonzo said he no longer knows what to expect.
“There’s lots of chaos right now,” he said. “There’s an overwhelming amount of work to be done. Practicing in Department 511, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Another eviction wave coming
In less than a month, there will be no more moratoriums anywhere in the county. All that’s left now is Berkeley’s partial ban, and that wraps up Aug. 31.
But the greatest impacts may not yet be visible.
Oakland is the county’s largest city, and it’s majority-renter. While its moratorium ended July 15, a new law says tenants can’t be evicted for owing less than one month’s worth of rent.
“The smarter or more sophisticated landlord or attorney is going to wait,” said Selawsky, the tenant lawyer. “That will have a staggering effect on things.”
September could see hundreds of Oakland renters newly at risk of losing their homes.
The one-month rule is not the only new policy in Oakland making it harder to evict, though. The city is already known to have some of the strongest tenant protections in the country, and both the City Council and voters have recently strengthened its Just Cause for Eviction policy, placing more limits on when a landlord can legally remove a renter.
But the rate of defaults alone will likely mean tons more evictions throughout the county for the foreseeable future.
The East Bay Community Law Center and several other tenants’ rights organizations recently sent a letter to the court and Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez, whose deputies are tasked with carrying out evictions in cases where tenants refuse to leave. The lawyers asked the authorities to wait longer than usual to authorize and complete an eviction.
Those few weeks would give tenants time to ask for stays or dismissals, they wrote. The pile-up at the court “creates a unique risk of erroneous default judgments,” with delays in processing responses or failures to send notices to appear. Or a tenant might have gotten so used to receiving notices postponing their eviction case throughout the pandemic that they misinterpreted a notice saying it was back on, the authors said.
“As evictions are filed at even more staggering rates in the coming weeks, the system overwhelm will make these types of errors more likely and more difficult to catch and correct,” the letter reads.
The court is looking to hire more staff, said Kolakowski.
Outside of Department 511, broader questions will need answers. What to do about all the money landlords are owed? How to handle a potential spike in homelessness and help the people experiencing it?
But inside the drab brown doors of Department 511, we “just keep swimming,” said Kolakowski. Her clerk’s boyfriend said that line from Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” should be the department motto.
“No matter what’s going on, we’re just going to smile and keep on swimming,” said the judge. “Because otherwise, we would drown.”