• Patrick Santos, Esq.

Landlord versus Tenant: A Landslide of Litigation Is Just Around The Corner.

Today is the first day of summer. That's pretty sweet. Yet, every day I wake up I can't help but hear certain song lyrics playing inside my head, albeit involuntarily:

"Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide.

No escape from reality."

While this may be due to the fact that I play Bohemian Rhapsody in the shower very loud and very often, it may also be I am playing it so much because it is always in my head. The chicken or the egg -- it's not important. What is important is the impending landslide of litigation about to descend upon the eviction courts across California, but worst of all, in Los Angeles County ("LA County.")

A few facts about Los Angeles County are apt to start. First, Los Angeles County Superior Court system is the largest single unified trial court in these United States. There are currently 38 fully functioning court houses. When I started out as an attorney in 2009, there were a lot more, but many more were closed due to budget constraints. When all's said and done, we keep 497 judges for LA County, and that's not including Commissioners! (Judicial Council Roster.) Of the 38 fully functioning court houses I mentioned, only 11 handle evictions, called "unlawful detainer hubs."

Second, the estimated population in Los Angeles County today is greater than ten million people -- a new high for the most populous county in the United States. (10,118,759 to be exact).

Third, the LA County Sheriff's Department is the United States' largest sheriff's department, with approximately 18,000 employees. Only 9,972 are sworn deputies, however. In LA County, only a sworn deputy can lock you out of your home with an eviction order from a court.

Fourth, Los Angeles County has one of the lowest home-ownership rates in the nation, which means most of us are renting, not buying.

Fifth, as you may know, there is currently a moratorium on evictions throughout California by executive order of Governor Newsom. Translation? Your landlord cannot evict you for not paying your rent. This is currently set to expire on June 30, 2020 (that's in 10 days!)

Sixth, when the executive order is lifted, and the court hubs start accepting eviction cases again in LA County, I anticipate thousands of evictions being electronically filed in a single day. Law firms that do evictions are seeing their golden age these last few months, and the months to come will mean an even bigger demand on their services. I also predict attorneys will have no choice but to turn cases away because they will be too busy. The unlawful detainer assistants will help defray some of the services, but I still predict the demand will outweigh not only the supply of attorneys, but also the capacity of the current court system here in LA County.

Seventh, Governor Newsom's executive order proximately caused tens-of-thousands of landlords to lose out on their passive income of rent. For some this is their only income. This means many mortgages are not being paid, and the executive order is rippling through the banking system. At the same time, the executive order has shown great compassion to renters at a time of great and genuinely extraordinary need.

From this set of facts, there is but one conclusion: if a new law is not made, all aspects of the current eviction system in Los Angeles County will collapse. There will not be enough judges for the number of cases. There will not be enough Sheriff's to enforce eviction orders. There will not be enough lawyers to help all the people, some tenants, some landlords. Where the renters who are actually evicted will end up is anyone's guess. We already have a big enough homelessness problem. The strain on the system will cause the world's largest functioning legal system to come crumbling down.

COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program

Good news? Lawmakers consider this landslide of litigation foreseeable and are starting to do something about it. A new Senate Bill introduced, SB 1410, is known as the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Under this new proposed law, the state of California would make direct rental payments to help tenants who cannot afford to pay their rent. SB 1410 would cover at least 80% of unpaid rent attributable to the pandemic.

The procedure of it is still being tweaked, but basically, landlords who agree to participate in the program would receive at least 80% of the monthly rent the tenant owes for up to three months provided the landlord agrees 1) not increase rent for the unit for a specified period, 2) not charge late fees for the past due rent paid by the program, and 3) not pursue any remaining rent owed for the months paid by the program. Whether this will become law is not yet known.

How's that for getting creative with the law? Laws shift and change with time and needs of people. They ebb and flow like the tides of the Los Angeles County beaches. If we can "bail out" undeserving Wall Street, we should also be willing to bail out normal people who actually deserve the help. If not, we can rest assured the laws and procedure currently in place in Los Angeles County for evictions will collapse out from under us. When laws become ineffectual, people will rage in disbelief and discontent. We can fix the problem now, or we find ourselves standing in front of a landslide using nothing but our arms extended to protect us.

In sum, this is the real life. This is not just a fantasy. We need to do something to prevent from being caught in a landslide of litigation. If not, there may be no escape from the new reality. Fingers crossed for SB 1410.

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