In April, Juan Carlos Cruz Mora received an eviction notice from his landlord, alleging he caused property damage and filthy, unsafe living conditions in the suburban Sacramento duplex he had called home for the past 10 years. He had only five days to file a response in court.
Mora, who blamed his landlord for these problems, tried to file an answer in court himself, but feared that a mistake could put him, his wife and two young children on the street. He said he paid a lawyer $1,000 to help.
“With one word I can lose the case,” he said in Spanish.
Thousands of tenants in California lose their homes each year because they fail to present this initial response in court. Failure to check the correct box or file a timely response could indeed result in a default judgment against them.
A group of tenant advocates and attorneys released a tool today that they hope will change that.
More than 50 attorneys and tenant attorneys from The debt collective, Los Angeles Tenants Union, The Anti-Displacement Mapping Project, UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality & Democracy and on Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment has been working on the Tenant Power Toolkit for the past two years — a largely volunteer effort, explains Hannah Appel, a professor of anthropology at UCLA who came up with the idea based on her work as a co-founder of A long team.
The website they created resembles tax filing software. It asks tenants a long series of questions in relatively plain English or Spanish, which creates a legal document that they can print and present in court. Tenants in Los Angeles County can file electronically. If they choose, tenants can contact other tenants and legal aid organizations through the website.
Questions vary depending on the type and location of the move. For example, if their city has rent control for people over the age of 65 who have lived in the building for five years, the tool will ask tenants about their age and how long they’ve lived in the building, and refer to this protection on paper, even if the tenants did not know the protection existed.
Of the more than 129,000 eviction cases filed between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, at least 24,000 tenants lost their lawsuits in default, according to data from the Judicial Council. This is 46% of cases in courts that have reported their results – which most courts do not. Inadmissible judgments fell to 7,600, or 40 percent of reported outcomes, last year as a result of nationwide eviction defenses, which researchers say do not reflect a typical year.
“As a lawyer, it really pains me to see tenants lose cases just because they can’t provide a piece of paper,” said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, one of the lead housing attorneys behind the tool. He called it the first of its kind on a national scale.
Legalese isn’t the only thing keeping a tenant from filing a response, according to Amber Crowell, associate professor of sociology at Fresno State and housing coordinator at Faith in the Valley. Tenants often leave their homes before going through the eviction process because they feel they have no chance in court. Losing a lawsuit can hurt a person’s credit and chance of renting another home.
The tool buys tenants at least 10 days to file an amended answer and find an attorney before trial. But its creators warn that the website is not a substitute for a lawyer. Access to legal aid remains rare for tenants, who nationally are represented by an attorney 10 percent of the time, according to the ACLU. This statistic boils down to 1% in Fresno, Crowell found in a 2019 study. Blasi expects the tool to have a greater impact in places where people have more access to legal aid.
“In an ideal world, the tool wouldn’t be needed at all,” Blasi said.
Mora will defend himself in the upcoming trial because he is unhappy with the private attorney he hired and cannot find free legal aid.
Although it was drafted on a “tight budget,” the group hopes to attract more philanthropic and state funding to keep the tool current, especially as local jurisdictions adopt new tenant protections.
But money isn’t all they want from lawmakers. The groups argue that tenants should have the right to legal representation in court, efforts that have not had much success at the state level. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a watered-down version of that last year, a bill to create the current one tenant legal services trust fund because he claimed that there is already money in the budget for legal aid for tenants.
Got an eviction notice? This website will help you file a response