HOMELESS CRISIS - In April, Juan Carlos Cruz Mora received an eviction notice from his landlord that alleged he caused property damage and dirty, unsafe living conditions in the Sacramento suburb duplex he had called home for the last 10 years.
He had only five days to file a response in court.
Mora, who blamed his landlord for those issues, tried to file an answer with the court himself but feared a mistake could land him, his wife, and his two young children on the street. He said he paid a lawyer $1,000 to help.
“With one word I could lose the case,” he said in Spanish.
Thousands of California tenants lose their homes every year because they fail to submit that initial answer in court. Failing to check the right box or file a timely response could, indeed, trigger a default judgment against them.
A group of tenant advocates and attorneys today launched a tool they hope will change that.
More than 50 tenant advocates and attorneys from The Debt Collective, The LA Tenants Union, The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality & Democracy and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment worked on the “Tenant Power Toolkit” over the last two years — a mostly volunteer effort, explains Hannah Appel, an anthropology professor at UCLA who came up with the idea based on her work as a co-founder of the Debt Collective.
The website they created resembles tax-return-filing software. It asks tenants a long series of questions in relatively plain English, or Spanish, that produces a legal document they can print and submit in court. Tenants in Los Angeles County can file the paperwork electronically. If they choose, tenants can connect to other tenants and legal aid organizations through the website.
The questions vary by eviction type and location. For example, if their city has rent control for people over the age of 65 who lived in the building for five years, the tool will ask tenants for their ages and the time they lived in the building and invoke that defense on paper, even if the tenants didn’t know the protection existed.
Of more than 129,000 eviction cases filed between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, at least 24,000 tenants lost their court cases in a default judgment, according to data from the Judicial Council. That’s 46% of cases in courts that reported their outcomes — which most courts don’t do. Default judgements dropped to 7,600, or 40% of reported outcomes, last year as a result of statewide eviction protections, which researchers say make that not reflective of a typical year.
“As a lawyer it really pained me to see tenants lose cases just because they couldn’t file a piece of paper,” said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, one of the lead housing lawyers behind the tool. He called it the first of its kind nationwide.
Legalese isn’t the only thing that prevents a tenant from filing a response, according to Amber Crowell, an associate professor of sociology at Fresno State and housing coordinator at Faith in the Valley. Tenants often vacate their homes before going through the eviction process because they don’t think they stand a chance in court. Losing a case can damage a person’s credit and chance at renting another home.
The tool buys tenants at least 10 days to file an amended response and find a lawyer before the court trial. But its creators warn the website is no substitute for a lawyer. Access to legal aid remains rare for tenants, who nationally are represented by an attorney in 10% of cases, according to the ACLU. That statistic shrivels to 1% in Fresno, Crowell found in a 2019 study. Blasi expects the tool will have a bigger impact in places where people have greater access to legal aid.
“In an ideal world, the tool would not be necessary at all,” Blasi said.
Mora will defend himself in his upcoming court trial because he was unhappy with the private attorney he hired and unable to find free legal aid.
While it was put together on a “shoestring budget”, the group hopes to attract more philanthropic and state funding to keep the tool up to date, especially as local jurisdictions pass new tenant protections.
But money isn’t all they want from lawmakers. The groups argue tenants should have a right to legal representation in court — efforts that have had little traction at the state level. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a watered down version of that last year, a bill to create an ongoing legal services trust fund for tenants because he argued there was already money for tenant legal aid in the budget.
(Manuela Tobias is the housing reporter for CalMatters. Her stories focus on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that have contributed to the housing crisis in California.)