Eviction Decline Is No Solace for Thousands of Renters Losing Their Homes

Sunday, May 28, 2017
Jeff Collins
Orange County Register

Joann Nieves spent the first week after her eviction sleeping in her Chevy pickup with her three young sons.

“It was kind of uncomfortable,” said Jacob, 11, her oldest.

To her youngest, 6-year-old Anthony, “it was scary.”

Things have improved since then. Nieves, 36, now sleeps on an air mattress on the living room floor of her boyfriend’s mom’s house in Santa Ana, while her sons share a bed in one of the bedrooms.

Each morning, she drives her sons to Anaheim so they can stay in the same school, then stops off on her way home to check out apartments for rent.

But with shoddy credit, and now an eviction, on her record, her prospects for finding anything remotely like the two-bedroom unit she used to rent in an affordable housing complex aren’t good.

“It’s not going to happen because of the eviction,” the under-employed single mom says.

Stories like these are the dark side of evictions, which used to occur with alarming regularity throughout Southern California, pushing some families into homelessness and leaving others with unstable housing for years.

But these days there’s a bright side to Southern California’s eviction story.

Despite rising rents and declining affordability, eviction cases are on the wane throughout the region, data obtained by the Southern California News Group show.

Court filings dropped 30.5 percent from 2008 to 2015, numbers compiled for Redfin.com by American Information Research Services.

And the number of evictions conducted by sheriff’s deputies fell 29 percent from 2012 through 2016, according to a separate set of numbers from sheriff’s departments in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Landlords, property managers, eviction attorneys and economists confirmed the trend, saying a growing economy has improved the lot of the 2.8 million renter households based in Southern California. That, in turn, lowered the eviction rate.

“What that means is kids get to go to the same school year after year,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted.”

“That means that more families get to understand the meaning of home and community and plant roots. It means lower rates of homelessness and residential insecurity in the lives of families,” Desmond added. “It means the city is not bearing the costs of all the fallout of evictions that range from increased crime in neighborhoods to health problems among folks that do get evicted.”

After rising precipitously during the economic downturn, Southern California evictions made an about-face by 2010, three sets of statistics examined by Southern California News Group show.

Court eviction cases fell from almost 86,000 in 2008 to just under 60,000 in 2015, according to the Redfin numbers. Evictions by local sheriff’s departments fell from 62,600 regionwide in 2012 to just over 44,400 in 2016.

Foreclosures — in which banks seized landlords’ homes then tossed out their tenants — inflated eviction numbers during the downturn, a third set of numbers from the Orange County court system show. Foreclosures accounted for 12 percent of Orange County eviction filings in 2011, but just 3 percent in 2016. Although foreclosure-related evictions have all but vanished, non-foreclosure evictions also dropped steadily in the past six years, the data show.

The decrease in evictions is somewhat counterintuitive. Rising rents — up 3 percent to 4 percent annually in Southern California for the past five years — should make it harder for tenants to keep up with their monthly payments.

So why the decline?

“Economics,” said Chris Thornberg, a founding partner with Beacon Economics, adding that wage growth in recent years has been steady.

“Unemployment is down. Incomes are going up.”

That in turn, Thornberg said, “is creating the income stability necessary for lower eviction rates.”

People who lost their jobs and moved in with family and friends during the recession, now are working — and paying their rent, property managers and eviction lawyers said.

Many of the new jobs added during the recovery have been in low-wage sectors. But they’re plentiful. California has added jobs consistently for the past seven years, state employment figures show.

“People have multiple gigs and an array of options to generate ancillary income to help make ends meet,” said Nicholas Dunlap, an executive with an affordable housing firm and president of the Apartment Association of Orange County.

Technology also could play a role in reducing evictions, helping landlords both on the screening side and on the collection side.

“With the internet, information is much more widely available, and the quality of background check data helps landlords to make the best choice when it comes to screening prospective residents,” Dunlap said. “Technology has also helped to create a variety of new payment options for residents. You’re no longer limited to check or money order.”

Counter trends

Last year, the Inland Empire had about 25 evictions per 1,000 renter households, roughly double the rate in Orange County (12 per thousand) and Los Angeles County (14 per thousand).

Inland Empire economist John Husing, chief analyst for Economics and Politics Inc., said higher housing costs in Los Angeles and Orange counties are forcing riskier tenants — those with lower incomes and fewer job skills — to migrate east.

“You’re pushing those kinds of families inland… and you end up with a disproportionate number of evictions,” Husing said.

Not everyone is convinced the eviction data accurately reflects what’s happening.

Nela Richardson, chief economist for Redfin, noted that eviction filings likely undercount the actual number of people being forced to move out of their homes.

“Data is messy,” Richardson said. “There are so many other ways – by raising the rent, by basically harassing people – to get people to move out of the home. It doesn’t go through the court filings, it doesn’t involve a sheriff.”

Tenants attorney Claudia Medina, director of affirmative litigation for the Los Angeles-based Eviction Defense Network, believes evictions are going up — at least in Los Angeles — as landlords look for ways around rent control and as neighborhoods gentrify. She believes landlords pressure tenants to accept buyout agreements or just harass them into leaving.

“Landlords want to avoid a courthouse eviction because it’s cheaper,” Medina said.

No place to go

The eviction rate last year for Southern California as a whole was 15.8 per 1,000 renter households, vs. 30.5 per thousand in 2009.

But in a region of 18 million people, even with lower rates, that still adds up to a huge number. Sheriff’s deputies throughout Southern California conducted at least 260,000 evictions over the past decade, data show.

“For folks that are experiencing eviction, it’s a longer story for them,” author Desmond said. “This is a poverty story; a lack of affordable housing story.”

A parade of tenants appeared one morning last March in the Orange County courtroom of Superior Court Judge Carmen Luege. Each pleaded for extra time because they had nowhere to go.

“I don’t have the money to move,” said Chirstina McKay, a real estate agent disabled by multiple sclerosis. She wanted to stay until her lease expired in May. The judge ruled she could provided she paid all her rent.

“I’ve been defrauded,” added Katia Onassis, 56, who lost $1,400 because her roommate — a man she met through a Craigslist rental listing — took her money but didn’t pay the rent.

“I lost my deposit and everything,” Onassis said. “I’m not prepared. I’m going to be out on the streets.”

Santa Ana resident Jenni Leocadio, 42, sought an extension because she had just learned her estranged husband stopped paying the rent after she moved out. She needed more time to find a new home for their five children, including 6-year-old triplets. She’d been living in her van.

“I can’t even find a room. … It’s so expensive out there,” Leocadio said outside the courtroom, her pale-blue eyes welling with tears. “Last night, one of my triplets asked if they had to have their bags packed in case the policeman came to lock them out. I try to be strong, but it’s so hard.”

Nineteen days later, Leocadio moved most of her possessions into two storage units. She still hasn’t found a new place to rent.

Instead, she and the triplets now share a queen-sized bed in a downstairs bedroom of her sister’s home. Her two other sons sleep on a couch in the family room.

“I’m just glad I have my kids, and that’s all that matters right now,” she said.

Nobody wants evictions

Property managers go to great lengths to screen tenants before renting to them.

“We’re no fans of evictions,” said James Wohrman, owner of FDC Management in Anaheim, which manages about 4,000 units in Southern California and Texas. “It’s a headache we don’t need, and we try to encourage people not to go that route.”

Wohrman’s company spent $1.05 million on legal fees for more than 2,000 evictions over the past decade, company figures show. Wohrman expects to spend at least $90,000 more this year.

More costly than legal fees, however, is lost rent. Every month that an apartment or home remains vacant represents lost money for the landlord, who still pays the mortgage, maintenance, insurance, taxes and salaries whether they collect rent or not.

And it’s taking longer to remove a delinquent tenant, said Vickie Binford, director of property operations for Irvine-based Advanced Management Co., which manages about 8,000 units throughout Southern California.

“It used to be a week after you get the judgment,” she said. “It’s now a few weeks. I do think an eviction is a hardship on the landlords.”

It’s why landlords resort to a host of alternative strategies to avoid evictions and cut their losses when things do go sour.

It starts with a thorough screening, followed by a serious talk encouraging on-time payments.

“The mistake you can make is to be overly compassionate, which only leads to (tenants) being too far behind,” Wohrman said.

But landlords need to be flexible, too.

“I don’t want to throw somebody out if they can pay in a couple of days,” Binford said.

Once a case goes to court, attorneys can draft agreements for stipulated judgments, under which the tenant agrees to move out by a certain date, resulting in an automatic eviction judgment if he or she fails to comply.

Landlords often will forego unpaid debts if they can get an apartment back in good condition. An angry tenant will cut screens, punch holes in walls or split the carpet down the middle.

“If (the eviction) is not combative, you’re more likely to get a decent apartment back,” Wohrman said.

Packing up

With money borrowed from her father, Joann Nieves rented a storage unit in Santa Ana for $135 a month.

Friends helped her move mattresses, a couch, her dining set, the bunk beds.

The night before the sheriff’s department was due to come, Nieves was in an ambulance heading to the hospital.

“I just couldn’t breathe. I was stressed out,” she said. “All this stuff I had to go and do. No babysitter.”

It was a panic attack. The hospital released her, and she went home and continued packing.

Until that moment, Nieves had been one of Orange County’s most fortunate tenants, winning a berth in a new affordable housing complex operated by Jamboree Housing Corp. in Buena Park. Rent for her two-bedroom unit was $824 a month, or about half the going rate for such apartments. She spent $6,000 furnishing her home.

She blames her eviction on a dispute with the property manager, although she concedes she was $969 behind on her rent.

On Jan. 10, her landlord posted a standard three-day notice to pay or move out. When the three days lapsed, the landlord filed for eviction, or in court parlance, an “unlawful detainer.”

Nieves said she was confused by the court jargon, the legalese; a lack of experience with the eviction process.

By the end of the month, the court issued a default judgment without her ever making an appearance, which is common in eviction cases.

“They never gave me a paper showing a date to appear in court,” she said.

The one posting she completely understood, she said, was the “Notice to Vacate,” which a sheriff’s deputy delivered to her door in early February.

“Thank God my kids weren’t there,” Nieves said.

She was given just under two weeks to move out.

All through that last weekend, she drove truckloads to her Public Storage unit. It didn’t all fit, so Nieves threw several boxes away.

Her 7-by-10-foot unit was packed to the ceiling, 12 feet up. The door got stuck when she tried to open it during a recent visit, so she crawled inside to free the metal, roll-up gate.

Stacked inside was her entire apartment: A window air conditioning unit, a mini-refrigerator, appliances, clothes, shoes, toys, TV’s, furniture.

Now, she’s looking for a new home, so she can unpack all this and move in.

She has contacted Legal Aid, Build Futures, the Illumination Foundation, the First Southern Baptist Church and several other programs. The network found her some work. One agency found her an apartment, but she had too many unpaid debts to qualify.

Her boyfriend’s mother doesn’t complain about her and her kids staying in her home, but Nieves knows the arrangement can’t be permanent.

She used her tax refund check to pay off her debts and has put her name on the waiting list for several apartments. Still no luck.

“I need to get my own place,” Nieves said. “It’s been going on for three months now. It’s ridiculous.”

“I have an eviction on my record now,” she added. “That’s not going to help me one bit.”

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