In summary

The wheels of the eviction process are still turning in many parts of the state, and renters can remain subject to ejection for many reasons.

Pandemic or no pandemic, landlords’ attorney Dennis Block is still trying to evict renters. 

As public health authorities advise Californians to stay indoors to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus, Block says he is continuing to file eviction lawsuits in Southern California courts in cases not covered by local moratoriums like those recently imposed in Los Angeles. 

“There’s no one person that I’m aware of, certainly in Southern California, that lost their job and couldn’t pay the March 1 rent,” said Block, who declined to say exactly how many eviction lawsuits he’s filed in recent days. 

“So unless you just want to say okay, well there’s a pandemic, let’s just start throwing money around from other people’s pockets, then that’s what you got.” 

Tenant-rights groups say the wheels of the eviction process — like Block’s lawsuits — are still turning in many parts of the state. They argue that’s partly because Gov. Gavin Newsom has so far resisted a blanket moratorium for California. 

An executive order Newsom announced two days ago allows cities and counties to impose their own eviction bans if they choose. Some of those apply only to cases where tenants can demonstrate a negative financial impact from the public-health crisis; renters remain subject to eviction for other reasons. 

The governor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment. The Trump administration took action Wednesday to prevent foreclosure-related evictions among some homeowners, but it would not apply to the vast majority of renters. 

Newsom’s order is “creating chaos and stress,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for the California Alliance for Community Empowerment, a leading tenant-rights organization. And, she said, it could make people homeless and spread the virus.

What about evictions already in process or not related to coronavirus? 

Block’s lawsuits, or any other “unlawful detainer” actions filed by landlords in recent days, may not immediately result in sued tenants losing their housing. 

The attorney, who controversially recommended that landlords accelerate “no-cause” evictions before a new state law took effect this year limiting the practice, said he has empathy for renters who will be laid off or whose hours were reduced as a result of coronavirus. 

But he also asked for empathy for landlords who depend on rental income to make their own ends meet. And he wondered why government assistance is not being provided for both tenants and landlords. 

“Can you imagine if you own a duplex and you desperately needed the income off of that duplex — that’s your source of income?” said Block. 

Newsom’s executive order allows local governments to ban landlords from trying to evict tenants who are suffering from a loss of income related to COVID-19. But his directive and many local moratoriums do not extend protection to other reasons for eviction, such as a landlord alleging a nuisance or other lease violation. 

Los Angeles tenant-rights attorney Frances Campbell said there’s nothing stopping landlords from taking legal action against their tenants. There’s just not much they can do until the Los Angeles Superior Court reopens for regular business, which has been delayed until April 16. Tenants won’t have to answer until five business days after the court reopens.

But he also asked for empathy for landlords who depend on rental income to make their own ends meet. And he wondered why government assistance is not being provided for both tenants and landlords.

Campbell said she understands the rationale behind Block’s position. 

“I can’t say he’s doing the wrong thing. He’s not breaking any law,” Campbell said Wednesday. “And among his clients, there are plenty who own small apartment buildings; they can’t pay the mortgage. There may be people who haven’t paid their rent in months.”

Under normal circumstances, a tenant would have five days to respond to an eviction lawsuit in writing to a local court, after which a trial date might be set. If a renter does not respond in time, the landlord wins the case. 

Many California cities, including Los Angeles, have expanded the time a renter has to respond to 30 days. 

But not all have, and even where tenants may have an expanded window, the mechanics of how to respond could be daunting — especially as legal-aid clinics across the state see their workforces and volunteers forced to work from home. 

“You need to figure out what the form is, and know how to fill it out,” said Weisberg. “You have to sign them and print them out and you have to upload it to a specific program.” 

Which courts have closed? 

The state judicial system does not maintain a comprehensive list of counties that have closed their eviction courts in recent days. 

Most large, urban counties like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego have done so, postponing trials for several weeks. These counties are making exceptions for eviction cases related to domestic violence and similarly threatening circumstances. 

But as of March 18, several counties had yet to suspend eviction hearings, encouraging tenants, landlords, lawyers and judges to participate in the hearings over the phone. Santa Cruz and Mendocino counties have taken this approach. 

“You’ve got a whole scattershot approach for people,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, whose court system is freezing eviction proceedings. 

Rubinoff said that earlier in the week her legal aid clinic was filled with clients “crazy worried about what was going to happen to them” because they had already been served with an eviction notice. 

Ordinarily, an eviction judgment against a renter could lead to a “lockout,” with sheriffs forcibly removing tenants from a landlord’s property. While many counties with eviction moratoriums have also suspended lockouts, a spokesperson for the California State Sheriffs Association said the organization has not yet issued any guidance for how local sheriffs should handle them during the pandemic. 

When the courts reopen, will tenants have to move? 

Rosa Hernandez, 48, owed about $4,000 in back rent to her landlord in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood last November. She received an eviction notice in December — before the crisis fully ensnared California — and the proceedings stemming from it are ongoing. 

Hernandez lives with two other adults in the apartment, and the eviction notice was her second in less than a year. 

“My situation was very tight at that time,” Hernandez said about the nearly back-to-back eviction notices. 

She’s self-employed as a maid who cleans AirBnBs. Business began to dry up in November, when Los Angeles changed the rules governing short-term rentals and made it nearly impossible for one agent to promote multiple properties. With fewer places to clean, her take-home pay nose-dived. 

“Meanwhile, I was trying to catch up to pay rent,” Hernandez said. 

Then the coronavirus crisis hit, and travelers started staying home. Hernandez was working about 30 hours a week in the tightened Los Angeles AirBnb market in February. This week, it’s down to 10 hours. She worries what next week will be like. 

Hernandez said she’s less worried about contracting the virus and more concerned with where she will sleep if she’s evicted when the courts reopen. 

“Right now I’m just waiting for a court date,” she said.

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Matt Levin was the data and housing dude for CalMatters. His work entails distilling complex policy topics into easily digestible charts and graphs, finding and writing original stories from data, yelling...

Nigel Duara joined CalMatters in 2020 as a Los Angeles-based reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. Previously, he served as a national and climate correspondent...