Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eviction By Declaration Bill Advances, Exposing Sacramento Double Standard on Tenants

AB 1513 (Fox) would allow property owners to circumvent the already expedited court eviction procedures in order to evict someone the property owner declares is a trespasser. Current law allows police to arrest trespassers, and when it isn’t clear if someone’s a trespasser, the matter gets resolved in court where a tenant has the right to trial in an expedited proceeding. The bill’s author and its sponsor, the California Association of Realtors, have not explained why existing law is not sufficient to deal with trespassers. Legislators have not even asked the author or sponsors to come forward with a single case in which a new “eviction by declaration” law is needed. Yet the bill continues to advance. This contrasts sharply with how tenant protection bills are treated in the Capitol.

The Dangers of AB 1513
Assembly Member Fox has chosen a terrible time to try to strip away tenants’ rights to have their day in court. Wall Street investors are buying up foreclosed properties in bulk. The consolidation of rental property in the hands of distant corporate entities increases concerns that tenants will be improperly accused of being trespassers in their own homes.

The fact that the bill is sponsored by the California Association of Realtors adds insult to injury. Real estate agents working on behalf of post-foreclosure owners are some of the worst actors in the foreclosure crisis, frequently giving tenants false information about their rights and threatening to call law enforcement to remove tenants. This bill will further encourage their misconduct.
The problem has been so pronounced in recent years that the recently enacted Homeowner Bill of Rights included provisions to plug loopholes that post-foreclosure owners and their agents were using to evict tenants by accusing them of being unauthorized occupants. Fox’s bill threatens to undo these important advances.

AB 1513 also undermines the bright line that has enabled police to stay out of landlord-tenant disputes. When post-foreclosure owners acquire property and try to use law enforcement to remove tenants, police should respond that they don’t do evictions and that disputes over tenancy should be handled in court. Likewise, legal aid lawyers and other advocates should be able to confidently inform clients that only a sheriff with a court order can remove a tenant from his or her home. If AB 1513 becomes law, police will be in the eviction business and tenants will be denied their day in court. These dramatic changes to landlord-tenant law are dangerous and entirely unnecessary.

Watch a video of TT's Director, Dean Preston, testifying against AB 1513 at the Senate Public Safety Committee hearing:

The Politics of AB 1513

This bill shows how politics trumps policy in Sacramento. Ask anyone in the Capitol about this bill and you will find that the real story is no secret. Assembly Member Steve Fox, a Democrat elected in a Republican district, is courting realtors as he runs for re-election. Democratic lawmakers want to keep this district in the “D” column. The marching orders were clear: this bill must pass so Fox gets the win, even if legislators don’t like the bill. Hence the lopsided vote in the Assembly where only Assembly Members Tom Ammiano (D – San Francisco), Mark Stone (D- Santa Cruz) & Phil Ting (D – San Francisco) had the independence to vote “no.”

Thanks to opposition from Tenants Together, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, the grassroots Kill the Bill Coalition, and other community groups, the bill has gone through significant amendments to limit the damage. As currently written, the bill will sunset in a few years, be limited to three cities (Palmdale, Lancaster & Ukiah), and contain a new requirement for minimal judicial review. Even with these amendments, the bill remains fundamentally flawed and subject to abuse by investors seeking to evict tenants.

The Double Standard

Despite the fact that Assembly Member Steve Fox and the realtors sponsoring AB 1513 have not identified a single real situation — that’s right, not one — in which their “eviction by declaration” law is needed, the bill survived the Assembly Judiciary Committee, the Assembly floor, and yesterday Senator Loni Hancock’s Public Safety committee with only Senator Holly Mitchell (D – Los Angeles) dissenting.

Tenants Together has asked repeatedly for examples of why AB 1513 is needed. We have made clear that we are not asking for examples of trespassing; we are asking for examples of how existing law is not sufficient to allow property owners to remove trespassers. In other words, why do we need this bill at all? To date, we have received no answer. Nor has any legislator bothered to ask the author or sponsor such a basic question.

This is quite a contrast to the burden imposed on tenant advocates. When tenant advocates bring forward a bill to protect tenants from abuse, we are armed with data and specific stories because we know the committees will demand proof of the problem before approving legislation. Landlords and realtors not held to this standard.

When we recently showed that many hundreds of tenants annually were being thrown out of their homes due to Ellis Act abuse, state legislators argued that the numbers didn’t rise to the level of a crisis warranting action from Sacramento. Democrats like Cheryl Brown (D – San Bernardino) argued that 216 filed Ellis Act eviction notices (that’s 500 people) was not a big enough percentage of the housing stock of San Francisco to warrant action.

In our fight for Ellis Act reform, tenants showed up in force to tell their stories, backed by data from the Rent Board and other public records. In contrast, the real estate industry simply lied about how the Ellis Act is used, falsely claiming without a shred of evidence, that the Ellis Act is used by property owners to avoid bankruptcy. They were never asked for a single example of a landlord who used the Act to avoid bankruptcy. They knew that in today’s Sacramento they would never be asked for such evidence and that their false statement, if repeated enough, would be regurgitated by legislators hungry for campaign donations.

Exposing the Double Standard

This double standard must be exposed at every possible opportunity. Through online organizing, social media, direct action, and legislative advocacy, Tenants Together will continue to expose the disparate treatment of tenants in Sacramento and demand fair treatment for California’s 15 million renters.

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