Two years later: Is San Jose’s eviction law working?
A view of San Jose from near Highway 101 and Yerba Buena Road on May 31. Photo by Kyle Martin.

    As California lawmakers shelve legislation restricting evictions statewide, San Jose passed a similar “just cause” ordinance two years ago which requires landlords to cite a legitimate reason for terminating a lease. But is the law working here?

    Since the local law’s adoption in April 2017, San Jose City Hall has received more than 12,800 notices from landlords who intend to evict a renter, according to data requested by San José Spotlight. The top reason cited for the majority of evictions in San Jose: Nonpayment of rent.

    Other causes included violating a rental agreement, damages to a unit, causing a nuisance or illegally subletting a unit.

    According to the data, San Jose received 4,012 eviction notices from May 2017, when the law went into effect, until the end of the year. It’s hard to compare that figure to 2016, before the law passed, because the city did not track evictions prior to the legislation.

    City Hall received 7,854 eviction notices in 2018 and nearly 1,000 notices this year. The city received 683 eviction notices in May alone, according to the city data.

    “This is not a fast process at all, and I think that’s by design,” said Jeff Scott, a spokesman for the city’s Housing Department. “If things can be worked out, they’re given an opportunity to work out.”

    Scott said it takes about 60 to 90 days and “tons of paperwork” to evict someone in San Jose, but the overwhelming majority of potential evictions are worked out. “Perhaps the tenant is able to take care of whatever issue or whatever concerns the landlord may have and is able to stay in the property, or the tenant decides to move out rather than carry the case all the way through a potential trial in court,” he added.

    Two years since its passage, Scott says San Jose’s law is working the way it was intended — protecting tenants from unfair evictions while providing landlords enough flexibility over their properties.

    Brandon Lawrence, supervising housing attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, agrees that the law is making a difference for tenants, though many still need a lawyer to understand their rights and find the power to fight back.

    “Some of the trends that we are seeing is that the tenant protection (ordinance) is giving tenants a fighting chance to stay in their home,” Lawrence told San José Spotlight. “Unfortunately, we are seeing people being displaced for an unfair or no reason at all.”

    Amid the state’s agonizing housing shortage, tenant advocates saw unlawful evictions in San Jose hit disadvantaged communities the hardest, including working families, people of color and those suffering from mental illness. Lawrence said his law firm takes up to 20 eviction cases per month in court, and that last year they helped more than 2,000 people fight an eviction.

    That’s why Lawrence believes statewide eviction legislation is sorely needed.

    State lawmakers last week adjourned without taking up Assembly Bill 1481, a “just cause” eviction law which would have prohibited landlords from evicting renters unless they fail to pay rent, cause a nuisance or violate their lease terms. It’s the second time a just cause law was defeated in the Assembly in the last two years.

    The state Assembly did, however, narrowly pass another bill, which caps rent increase to 7 percent plus inflation for the next three years. The bill initially proposed a 5 percent rent increase cap, which aligns with San Jose’s local rent control policy, but the legislation was watered down amid heavy opposition from landlord special interest groups.

    “I think a statewide (ordinance) would be a great way of enhancing tenant protections, but it would not just be in specific communities,” Lawrence said.

    Landlords cite additional difficulties

    But Joshua Howard, senior vice president of the California Apartment Association, which lobbied against San Jose’s legislation, says it has had unintended consequences. Howard said the city is forcing property owners “to spend thousands of dollars” just to remove a bad tenant from a rental property.

    San Jose’s law is flawed, according to Howard, because there’s no way to expedite the removal of a bad tenant or waive legal fees related to the eviction process.

    “With the adoption of San Jose’s just cause law in 2017, rental owners must now prove in court the reasons for removing a problem resident,” Howard said. “Because the legal process is costly and very time-consuming, bad tenants stay put longer, which is unfair to their law-abiding neighbors. Knowing that their ability to evict is limited, many landlords may also be less willing to rent to applicants with an imperfect rental history.”

    Longtime landlord Steve Hanleigh said tenants abusing a lease are afforded protections through the just cause ordinance.

    “Proving the reason you want to get somebody out because they’re a bad tenant is the hard part,” said Hanleigh, who owns numerous properties in San Jose. The most common problem he’s had with tenants, Hanleigh said, is tenants moving in family members not on the lease.

    “We don’t want to evict people, but if I have somebody living in my apartment that I don’t have a contract with, I’m going to evict them,” Hanleigh said.

    ‘Life-saving’ legislation

    But local housing advocates maintain that stronger tenant protections — including the just cause ordinance — are most effective in combating Silicon Valley’s homeless crisis because they help people living paycheck-to-paycheck, on the brink of losing their homes and ending up on the streets.

    Housing advocate Shaunn Cartwright called San Jose’s tenant legislation “life-saving.”

    “Bluntly it saves low income housing, it saves rent control housing and that saves lives,” Cartwright said. “If we have increased rental protections we would have less homelessness.”

    San Jose tenant Jeffery Koenig said San Jose’s eviction law could have protected him, if it applied to rental homes.

    He claims his landlord threw him out after he called an inspector to check “black mold,” dirty water and other safety hazards on the property. Koenig, 52, said he was lucky to find another home for his two daughters, grandson and himself, but the move cost him more than $2,000.

    Koenig holds a Section 8 housing voucher, which he said made his search for a new home in San Jose nearly impossible.

    “It basically closed off almost 75 percent to 80 percent of the available housing because nobody wants to rent to somebody on Section 8,” Koenig said.

    Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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