Renters rights: What to do if you're facing eviction in Los Angeles

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019
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Renters who are facing eviction in the Los Angeles area should know they have more rights than they may realize.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A growing number of renters who face evictions from their apartments are often left with no place to go.

But many of them don't understand their rights, their ability to fight the eviction and to keep the records of their case sealed.

There are nonprofit legal groups and renters advocates who want to make sure tenants understand their rights.

Michael, for example, is a 68-year-old who was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was forced to leave his apartment when he fell behind on the rent four years ago.

Michael had lived in the same rent-controlled unit in Beverly Hills for 22 years.

"When I fell two months behind in the rent they put the notice on the door and I said OK I'll leave."

Michael has been living off the kindness of friends since then - without a home of his own - for four years.

But recently he had the opportunity to rent a low-income apartment. Then he discovered a court eviction judgment against him, making him ineligible for the unit.

"I represented myself. I had no idea that the judgment should have been sealed. I didn't know how negotiate. I simply had no knowledge."

Michael is among the thousands of tenants each year who make the mistake of representing themselves in their eviction cases, referred to in court as unlawful detainer filings.

According to the Judicial Council of California, in 2018 there were nearly 48,000 unlawful detainers filed in LA County. And 33 percent of all eviction cases filed in California were in LA County, far more than anywhere else in the state.

"Unfortunately in the climate that we're in, it's too common that we'll see entire buildings get notices to terminate the tenancy and tenants are scared," said attorney Cynthia Chagolla. "They just leave."

Chagolla is Michael's lawyer. She says the vast majority of tenants facing eviction show up in court without a lawyer, while landlords are represented in court 90 percent of the time. It's why Chagolla says it's critical renters know their rights.

Among tenants rights:

  • First, a landlord cannot change locks or shut off utilities to force you out.
  • Landlors must provide a written notice of intent to evict - a minimum of three days notice for cause. And 30 or 60 days notice, with no cause, for non-rent control apartments, or those without lease agreements.
  • Three-day notices to quit - meaning evict - and three day notices to cure - meaning correct an issue - require a renter's response but may not require the renter to move out in three days.
  • "In most cases the landlord must provide the tenant an opportunity to fix the issue, to fix the problem," Chagolla said.

    Legal aid nonprofits like BetTzedek where Chagolla works will help renters for free.

    And there is high demand for that help. Just this year the nonprofit tripled its attorney staffing.

    "I can tell you we've certainly seen an uptick in what I will call frivolous notices, frivolous evictions," Chagolla said.

    Chagolla says just this month they successfully defeated the eviction of an elderly woman who had lived in her Beverly Hills apartment for decades.

    "The landlord in this case sought to evict the tenant in her 80s who had been in her apartment for 30 years for the allegation of failure to remove dog poop."

    Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, says most landlords actually try to avoid evictions.

    "That's a last resort. To evict someone in California, it takes four to six months, typically costs between $15,000 and $50,000 so it's the last thing you ever want to do in the world."

    Yukelson says many of the association's 10,000 members are mom-and-pop investors who bought apartment units for retirement income. He believes rent control regulations are making LA's housing shortage worse.

    "LA is losing five-and-a-half rent control units a day because people are getting out of the business. And that's why we have the severe housing shortages we have today, that's why rents are rising so rapidly."

    As for Michael, he's still without a home, but he's now qualified for a housing voucher and has hope.

    "They took care of it, they had the judgment waived and sealed and thank God for this organization."

    Advocates want to make sure renters understand that rent control protections include limits on how much your landlord can increase your rent. And "just cause protections" prevent a landlord from evicting you - unless there's a serious reason like failure to pay rent, illegal activity, or a violation of the lease agreement.

    Renters have the right to file court documents explaining their side of the story: this is called an "answer." Renters can seek documents from their landlord related to their rental agreement: this is called "discovery."

    Most importantly, renters are urged to get legal assistance for the court appearance.

    You can also request your case records be sealed to protect your right to rent future units.