Shirley Gibson isn’t quite sure how to feel about these numbers. 

As directing attorney of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County — which offers legal services to low-income tenants caught between the preposterously priced southern suburbs of San Francisco and the preposterously priced suburbs of Silicon Valley — she’s seen firsthand how California’s housing affordability crisis has overwhelmed her clientele. 

Rents in San Mateo County have increased nearly 55 percent since the start of the decade. A two-bedroom in Redwood City, the county seat, now goes for $3,500, according to data from Apartment List. Strong demand, fueled by the influx of high-income tech workers, means vacancy rates are low. 

“I don’t know what a normal housing market is anymore,” said Gibson. “There’s a tush for every seat right now. You can rent any unit you want within a week.” 

Theoretically that should have swelled the ranks of tenants needing her to defend them in eviction court. Ever-escalating rents should make it harder to pay rent on time, and delinquent payments are the most common reason a landlord sues to remove tenants from their property. Cutthroat demand presumably would spur landlords to evict more readily, knowing they won’t risk months of lost revenue in a post-eviction vacancy. 

Yet eviction lawsuits against San Mateo County renters from 2010 to 2018 dropped nearly 50 percent.

“This year is going to be the lowest you’ve ever seen,” said Gibson. “I don’t have a perfect explanation for why that is the case.” 

It’s counterintuitive amid a worsening housing crunch, but it’s happening statewide. While the median rent in California increased 23 percent between 2011 and 2018, the number of times California landlords sued their tenants to evict them dropped by nearly 40 percent over roughly the same period, according to data collected by UCLA researchers. 

Two crucial caveats: Those dropping numbers nonetheless represent a significant number of California renters facing the prospect of a court-ordered eviction — landlords initiated more than 137,000 of them in fiscal year 2017. And there’s no data on evictions that don’t end up in court, although researchers estimate they’re about twice as common as those that do. 

Still, the data shows a steep and steady drop in eviction court cases this decade in every sizable county — with cases diminishing more in some of the priciest areas.

“It’s a puzzle that I’m not sure we have an answer to,” said UCLA eviction researcher Kyle Nelson. 

Are landlords simply expanding efforts to evict tenants outside the courts? Have attempts to beef up legal aid to low-income residents paid off?

Neither academics nor landlords nor tenants can say definitively. But there are some guesses.

Evictions outside court could be rising. An unfavorable court judgement hangs an enduring legal albatross on renters — what some have termed “the Scarlet E.” In California, evictions stay on a tenant’s rental history for seven years, during which it becomes incredibly difficult to find another place to live.

But eviction lawsuits are one of the few forms of eviction that actually leaves a data trail. And that only happens if a renter stays in an apartment after being served with an eviction notice, forcing a landlord to go to court. 

Landlords have plenty of other options. California doesn’t know how many families move out after a “three days to pay rent or quit” sign is affixed to their door, let alone how many strike “cash for keys” arrangements or other informal agreements to leave. (If a renter moves out because the rent is raised, that’s not an eviction.)

Eviction researchers say even absent data, there’s good reason to think these undocumented evictions could be on the upswing. High rents and low vacancies mean landlords may be more willing to waive delinquent rents, buy out tenants or otherwise induce or threaten them, to get them to leave. 

“Say there’s more rent increases and more tenant harassment, and either way a tenant has to move,” said Aimee Inglis, program director with Tenants Together, a statewide renter advocacy group. 

Gibson, the San Mateo tenant attorney, says she’s seen a dramatic uptick in “no-fault” evictions over the past decade, even as court cases have declined. Until a new California eviction protection was passed in 2019, landlords could force renters to leave after their leases expire without giving a specific reason why, as long as they’re given 30 or 60 days notice. 

Gibson cites San Mateo County as an example of how expanded tenant legal services can change landlords’ eviction calculus. Her legal aid organization, buoyed by increased philanthropic support, has seen its practice expand from a one-person team to a six-person team over the last 12 years. 

“Suddenly there’s more lawyers in the community, more defense to (court eviction proceedings), so it’s getting harder and more expensive for landlords,” she said. 

Has the state gentrified so much that those at risk of eviction just leave? 

Possibly. That appears to be exactly what happened in Washington, D.C. 

Much as in San Francisco or Los Angeles, the cost of living in Washington, D.C. exploded over the last two decades. At the same time, eviction lawsuits steadily dropped while the city’s low-income housing stock shriveled as neighborhoods gentrified.

Many low-income Californians simply moved to cheaper places in-state. Bay Area rent refugees have flocked to the more affordable climes of Sacramento and Stockton. Los Angelinos are retreating to Riverside and the Inland Empire. 

You’d expect eviction suits to tick up in those counties as more vulnerable renters move in. But they haven’t. 

Michael Lens, an urban planning professor at UCLA, recently tried to determine what made one Southern California neighborhood more likely than another to see landlords initiate formal evictions. One hypothesis: gentrification.

“The conventional wisdom is that landlords will be more aggressive in trying to push people out … when they think they can get somebody who will pay more,” said Lens. “But that’s not what we find, on the court side of things.”

 

CALMatters is a nonpartisan journalism enterprise focused on statewide policy. 

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