Renegade Landlords: Despite Bay Area Moratoriums, Tenants Still Face Evictions

The Castillo-Gutierréz family at their home in Oakland on June 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Castillo-Gutierréz family came to Oakland five years ago, by way of Los Angeles, for the reason many people move anywhere: Work.

Anastacio Castillo, 47, the patriarch of the family, started out selling tamales and corn not in a shop, not at a stand, but by hand, person to person, hitting the streets eager to earn for his wife and three children. Eventually, he found a job as a handyman.

The Castillo-Gutierréz’s earn their living and reside in a single-family home in Oakland. But Anastacio lost work just before the pandemic shelter-in-place orders hit, making it doubly hard to recover.

The family fell behind on their rent, and now their landlord is trying to evict them, despite an Oakland eviction moratorium barring exactly that.

“Since the beginning, since my dad didn’t pay two months, [they] started asking for the house,” 16-year-old Gisselle Castillo said, translating for her father, who speaks Spanish. “He said he’s starting to get a [new] job already, but he’s scared because he doesn’t know what will happen.”

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The Castillo-Gutierréz family is far from alone.

Bay Area tenants groups and a prominent San Francisco tenants law firm say they’ve seen a surge in evictions, or high pressure from landlords meant to squeeze tenants out, as people across California file for unemployment in droves.

“We get 200 calls a week at our firm, new client calls, and a lot of them are [landlords] taking this into their own hands,” said Joe Tobener, a partner at Tobener Ravenscroft, a tenants law firm. And as KQED previously reported, The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley fielded roughly 1,400 calls from renters by early June related to the pandemic.

The Castillo-Gutierréz home in Oakland on June 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The California Employment Development Department has processed more than 6.7 million unemployment claims since the beginning of the pandemic, perhaps pushing many tenants into the same situation as the Castillo-Gutierréz family.

There is a statewide eviction moratorium in place, and many cities and counties across the Bay Area have passed their own renter protections, including Alameda, Marin, San Mateo, San Francisco, Solano and Sonoma.

But that hasn’t stopped landlords from pushing ahead with evictions anyhow.

‘Grave Violations’

On March 27, the Oakland City Council passed an eviction moratorium. Not paying your rent in Oakland could no longer prompt a landlord to evict you during the coronavirus pandemic.

Also on March 27, Christina and Ramiro Nava, who own the single family home the Castillo-Gutierréz’s live in, issued a 60-day notice to vacate for not paying their rent. The Nava’s declined to comment.

While the family explored their options, Christina Nava allegedly told the family the locks on their home needed to be changed. By May, the Nava’s tried to enforce their 60-day notice, now expired, by force — they tried to lock the Castillo-Gutierréz’s front gate, barring them from their home.

When the family got into the home anyhow and changed the lock again, the Nava’s tried a new tactic to regain access to the house: They removed the Castillo-Gutierréz’s fence, which the family recorded on video. When the Castillo-Gutierréz ’s put up boards to replace that fence, the Nava’s came back, this time flanked by two men on motorcycles.

“They were staring at us,” Anastacio said.

The unknown men sat atop their motorcycles, engines thrumming, as other men tore down the boards around the family's rented home. They chained the remaining pieces of the fence together, so the landlords could have unrestricted access.

After intervention from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a tenants group, the Oakland City Attorney’s Office stepped in to help.

In a June 24 letter to Christina and Ramiro Nava, Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker and the office’s Neighborhood Law Corps Attorney Axell Hernandez wrote that the allegations against the Nava’s, “if true, constitute grave violations of local and state law.”

The 60-day eviction notice the Nava’s filed was “invalid,” the incident with the motorcycles was “an effort to intimidate the tenants into leaving” and statements that the Nava’s intend to sell the property support the idea that the Nava’s were attempting to “harass and intimidate your tenants into giving up their right to possession,” the City Attorney’s Office wrote.

While such high-stakes intervention may help the Castillo-Gutierréz’s win out in the end, they said their landlords’ efforts to oust them have mounted their stress, stunted their sleep and stoked their fears.

Desperate Times

Joshua Howard, executive vice president in local government affairs for the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords, noted COVID-19 has impacted tenants and landlords alike. And the economic plight of tenants ripples. Mortgages, property taxes and employee payroll for larger landlords all go unpaid.

“That’s a situation that’s tough for everybody,” Howard said.

It’s also a situation that has turned the California Apartment Association, usually viewed as a political opponent of tenants, into their unlikely ally.

Howard said the association is “working closely” with the state legislature on a bill that would prompt the California government to assume the financial risks of tenants who owe back rent. That only makes sense — it helps landlords too.

A makeshift fence that Anastacio Castillo built after the landlord of their building took down the front fence that enclosed their house from the street, in Oakland on June 26, 2020. (Bath LaBerge/KQED)

State Senate Bill 1410 would give tenants 10 years to pay landlords back. If for some reason the tenant is unable to do so, landlords would then receive tax credits backed by California in equal amounts to any unpaid rent.

In the meantime, if there’s a case where a resident is unable to pay their rent due to COVID-19, “we would hope the owner works with the resident to form a payment plan or a resolution that benefits all parties,” Howard said.

Not everyone is heeding that advice. Tobener, the tenants attorney, had a simple explanation as to why.

“Landlords are feeling desperate,” he said.

The Judicial Council of California postponed a vote in early June to remove the statewide eviction moratorium, but court closures prompted the council to delay.

Consequences Multiply

Jackie Zaneri, an attorney with ACCE, the group representing the Castillo-Gutierréz family, said their story is far from unique.

“Harassment and lockouts seem to have dramatically increased during the pandemic,” Zaneri said. “Unfortunately, it seems a lot of landlords are resorting to extralegal means to try and remove tenants from their homes [amid the pandemic]."

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And those means are not always as obvious as an eviction notice.

Tobener said he’s seen cases across the Bay Area where landlords tell tenants they have to vacate for construction, try to lock them out completely or tell them to vacate “without just cause.” All of these methods are “trying to get them out through de facto means.”

But under many of the local eviction moratorium rules, those extralegal evictions, and even straightforward evictions, carry incredible consequences for landlords, Tobener said in some cities, like Oakland and San Francisco, damages awarded to tenants may triple that of normal.

That includes a return of rent “for having to live with the harassment,” emotional distress damages also awarded for harassment, damages awarded for the stress of having to move, the moving costs themselves and the cost of rent for having lost a rent controlled unit — plus attorneys fees.

In the case of the Castillo-Gutierréz  family, the landlords may end up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Tobener said.

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“This landlord,” he added, “has made a huge mistake.”