On Sunday night the Mayor of Los Angeles announced a moratorium on evictions. Here’s how day one of that moratorium went, from my perspective on the front lines of the eviction wars.
I am part of a nonprofit representing tenants facing eviction in Los Angeles. We are often the last line of defense for clients who get turned down by other agencies for lack of capacity. We make capacity for pretty much everyone, on a flat fee sliding scale.
On Monday morning I was in court continuing the 8 eviction trials we had set for that day. The cases are all jury trials and therefore cannot be heard anytime soon. These are tough times, but I am expecting a relatively light, easy day, and to get out quickly and sanitize.
While I am in court, a tenant whose case we lost tracks me down in the hallway and tells me she was locked out by the Sheriff last Friday, and that she’s been sleeping rough since then. She tells me she hasn’t eaten in two days. In a possible violation of State Bar rules, I hand her $10 and forget to tell her it is a loan (wink wink) and that she has to pay me back. She heads up to the cafeteria to get breakfast.
One of the landlord-side lawyers (who works for a firm that files 400 eviction cases per month) has gathered several of his clients together at the end of the hallway. They surround him ominously. Some of them wear masks. He tells them their cases will be continued due to the crisis. They are not happy. They want him to settle their cases, preferably to get their tenants out in 30 days. I overhear him telling them that no one has an incentive to settle because all cases are getting postponed.
Two hours later I am finished with my business but the evicted lady is back and making a ruckus in the hallway and the bailiffs warn me they will arrest her if it continues. I ask her to go to a County office for a hotel voucher. Fortunately, that gets her to leave without further incident. I immediately go to the men’s room and wash my hands thoroughly.
I head back to my office to find a waiting room full of tenants with new eviction cases trying to hire us, including a family with a two-year-old who is screaming his head off in a stroller. Apparently our staff disregarded our directive to limit access to the waiting room to one person at a time. We thought business would be slow with people staying isolated, making intake easier to manage. No such luck.
We can’t close down otherwise these tenants will get defaulted — they have five days from.being served to answer the lawsuit — and then evicted. Evicted in the middle of a pandemic. We are not sure how to strike a balance between two bad outcomes — either we close and these tenants have nowhere to turn, and get themselves evicted, or we stay open and risk hastening transmission of COVID-19. Like so many problems these days, there are no good solutions.
I tell everyone to write down their number on our sign in sheet and wait in the plaza outside the building, and that we’ll call when we are ready. I lock our front door and post signs with these clear instructions. I head back to my desk to process notes from court.
Thirty minutes later I come out and the waiting room is full again. There is a different family with a different two-year-old in a stroller, screaming his head off. Staff is still not following instructions. I am frustrated but I try to understand. The protocol we created to allow continued operations is making their job impossible. I remain in awe of their dedication and self-sacrifice during this time.
Worse, the evicted client from court shows up and refuses to leave. The county office is closed, she tells me. I get in touch with a county official who we had been working with to get her shelter to find out how to get her housed. He tells me LA county can’t help her and gives me a bureaucratic excuse.
It is 2pm. We have no capacity for more clients but new people are lined up outside the locked front entrance door with new cases, trying to hire us. Every couple minutes someone knocks. I tell everyone to come back tomorrow, that we open at 9 and they should get there early because it’s first come, first served. I place a sign on the front door. I go home, walking past the homeless woman, who is spread out in the hallway outside the office with all her stuff littering the ground. Like so many others before me, I have made her someone else’s problem.
Later that evening we learn via Twitter that the courts are closed starting Tuesday and plan to reopen Friday for “essential” services only. It’s unclear so far what that means for evictions. Are evictions essential?
That was moratorium day one. Stay tuned for day two.