Landlords use scare tactics as Santa Clara County evictions grow
Resident Manuel Ojeda (left) lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his wife came to the city's eviction help center in East San Jose to apply for rent relief. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Since the statewide eviction ban ended in September, Santa Clara County landlords have been kicking tenants out of their homes in growing numbers.

    A total of 365 eviction lawsuits have been filed in Santa Clara County from September through Nov. 30 of this year, according to data from the Santa Clara County Superior Court. Of those, 292 were residential eviction cases, while 73 were for commercial businesses.

    Residential evictions are still below the average of pre-pandemic years, which saw about 2,600 cases per year. The feared massive wave of evictions following the end of the state eviction moratorium on Sept. 30 hasn’t arrived. But legal experts say cases are steadily piling up in court. And with tens of thousands of households in the county estimated to be behind on rent, they anticipate the cases will keep coming.

    “I would say it was less of a tsunami, but it is increasing every week now and we have seen a lot of filings,” Karen Kontz, supervising attorney for the eviction defense practice at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight.

    Kontz said the law foundation has seen an increase in all types of evictions since the end of the moratorium, including nonpayment of rent claims, nuisance allegations and no-fault reasons, such as owners wanting to take properties off the rental market.

    In many cases, Santa Clara County tenants aren’t showing up in court to contest their evictions. According to court records, of the 171 residential eviction cases closed between September and December, 118 resulted in default judgements.

    Applying for assistance

    Santa Clara County tenants behind on rent must pay at least 25% of their owed amount from March 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021. The other route is to apply for rental assistance through the state, which is distributing funds to tenants and landlords to cover rent. In Santa Clara County, 18,129 households have applied for about $265 million in total funds, with the average household seeking $12,832 in assistance. So far, just 5,802 households have received an estimated $75,000,000.

    Tenants who have applied for rent relief but not received it can’t be immediately evicted as long as they show proof their application is pending. But many tenants don’t know about this protection, and advocates say there’s been an increase of cases where landlords bully or harass renters into leaving—even when landlords know the tenants have pending applications.

    “We’ve had several cases where landlords threatened to call immigration on people who are undocumented who have pending rental assistance applications,” Kontz said.

    Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for advocacy group Tenants Together, told San José Spotlight she’s seen similar behavior from landlords in other cities.

    “I’ve had to convince people not to move into their cars,” Singh said.

    Legal aid organizations across the state are drowning in eviction cases, Singh said, adding that some of this is fueled by landlords pursuing nuisance cases as a pretext for getting rid of tenants. There has also been a rise in landlords throwing out tenants without going through the established legal process. Tenants can fight these actions, but it’s difficult—especially when they lack legal representation.

    “People don’t feel really empowered to enforce their rights,” Singh said. “Going to eviction court is a really scary experience for folks.”

    Housing attorney Tom Skinner said the eviction docket mostly looks like what it used to before the pandemic. He noted it’s challenging for people to represent themselves in court for most matters, including evictions.

    Tenant advocates advise renters facing eviction to remain in their homes as long as they have pending rent relief applications. Kontz said even after a judgment is entered against a tenant, there’s an opportunity to apply for relief instead of relinquishing their home. This would enable them to obtain rental assistance and reinstate their tenancy.

    “That’s a protection that has previously not existed, and it’s really important for people to know,” Kontz said. “Even if they default or miss their court (hearing), if they have an approved application for rental assistance, they can apply to stay in their home.”

    Tenants and landlords seeking assistance with rent relief can go to the court’s website for guidance.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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