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[whitespace] Kirkman Hoffman Photograph by Paul Myers

The Perfect Storm: Seminar speaker Kirkman Hoffman begins packing up his belongings when ACORN refuses to leave. Hoffman gave seminar attendees this advice for courtroom battles: 'Most tenants don't have lawyers and that's good.'

Sticky Evictions

Tenants say they need a 'just cause' eviction law to protect them from landlords, but the powerful Tri-County Apartment Association says it's about property rights and control

By Genevieve Roja

THE SEMINAR was titled, "Nuts and Bolts of Lawful Eviction." Sponsored by the Tri-County Apartment Association (TCAA), the seminar had been advertised in the organization's own Apartment Management Magazine. "If you have faced lost income ... expensive repair bills ... difficulty removing troublesome tenants and are still facing a dead end, this seminar will help you," read the promotion. For $25 anyone could hear attorney Kirkman Hoffman spill eviction legalese, adeptly lobbing phrases like "unlawful detainer," "default," and "shifting burdens."

Sixteen people--mostly landlords, including one woman claiming she oversaw 275 apartment units--gathered on a Wednesday evening at the Blossom River Apartments in south San Jose to hear Hoffman, the founding owner of San Jose's Ace Eviction Services, speak. And when he drew a straight line on the dry erase board with the words "Decision to take action" and "Eviction" on opposite ends of the line, the 16 drew a line. They copied the diagram as ably as any student on their first day of school, in their first lesson on the very fine art of giving unwanted tenants the boot.

But class did not go as planned.

Forty minutes into Hoffman's lecture, a heavyset man dressed in a purple T-shirt rapped on the glass door. Fran Turano, a TCAA member and the event's ambassador, answered it, then quickly sidestepped as more than a dozen men, women and children marched into the room and begin chanting, "The people, united, will never be defeated." They carried homemade picket signs that read "Unjust evictions hurt families" and "ACORN says shame on you."

"This is a peaceful assembly!" Hoffman shouted, as some of the classroom attendees briskly walked out.

Armed for Battle

Some of the landlords and property managers stayed in their chairs, curious about the outcome. Others stood against the wall, arms folded and eyes undisturbed.

"What happens when a tenant's dealing drugs?" asked Hoffman of the protesters, who answered with their own stories and shouts of "Si se puede!" ("Yes, we can").

One of the seminar attendees returned with a disposable camera and began taking pictures of the protesters. Hoffman was served a massive cardboard piece of paper, a blown-up version of a 30-day eviction notice which he accepted, saying "Can I keep this?" Later he was seen in the parking lot, stuffing the notice into the trunk of his car.


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The protesters' goal that night, in partnership with the San Jose chapter of the grassroots organization the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), was to call attention to the passage of a Just Cause Eviction Ordinance that would require landlords to give a tenant a "just cause," or legally defensible reason, for evicting them. San Francisco and East Palo Alto already have such ordinances in place.

After the protestors left, Hoffman abandoned his prepared speech and launched directly into Q&A. He coached his students on how to handle their court cases--"Most [tenants] don't have lawyers and that's good"--and the actual serving of eviction notices--"Act quickly so you can cut off their rights." And the sage recommendation on preparing a case against a tenant, "When you go into battle, you go into battle armed."

It's a prescient statement coming from a man who's part of a virtual armory in the rental industry. Though most tenants in the valley have never heard of TCAA, it has more than 3,000 members and represents 11,500 rental housing owners and 285,000 rental units in a lucrative tri-county market: San Mateo County, Santa Clara County and Santa Cruz County. A self-described nonprofit trade organization, it employs a staff of 18, runs on an annual budget of $3 million and features a board of directors affiliated with some of the nation's wealthiest apartment management companies, investment firms and banks and even a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise.

Cause and Effect

Jane Hermann, a sixtysomething renter for 26 years and a retired county worker, does know about TCAA's sphere of influence. She has a disabled son whose assistance checks, paired with her pension, don't stretch far enough after bills for the rent at her Willow Glen cottage. In fact, she says, "I go into debt every month." Though she suspects that her landlord, who has raised her monthly rent $100 for every repair on her rental, does not work for any of the board of directors' management companies, she is feeling TCAA's animosity toward a just cause law.

In San Francisco's just cause model, legitimate reasons for eviction include: nonpayment of rent; habitually late payment of rent; a tenant creating a nuisance, disturbing other tenants or damaging property; the unit being used for illegal purposes; the tenant refusing to renew a rental agreement; and the tenant refusing the landlord access to the rental unit as required by state or local law.

Under it, renters have the right to demand in writing on their 30-day eviction notice why their tenancy is being terminated. And whatever reason the landlord gives must stand up in court.

And this is where TCAA sees the rub.

First, they contend that just cause would make it difficult to evict bad tenants--tenants who are loud, cause disturbances, sell or abuse drugs, or threaten other tenants. Just cause requires that landlords must prove their case against a bad tenant in court. This so-called "burden of proof," says TCAA, is great, since videotaped or recorded evidence of unlawful doings is not admissible in court. Personal testimony therefore is required, but it shifts the burden onto the landlord, who must gather witnesses to testify. In some cases, the neighbors of, say, a drug dealer may not be comfortable coming forward.

Directing Attorney of AIDS Legal Services and Santa Clara County Tenants Association founder John Doherty says the basis of TCAA's opposition is absolutely "not true."

"If you look at the people who want just cause, like ACORN and the Affordable Housing Network, that are out there in the community working to clean up the neighborhood, they wouldn't be asking for just cause at the very basic level if they thought that was true," Doherty says. "What just cause does do is require a landlord to be able to show, to be able to prove that they have a good and just motive for evicting somebody."

TCAA's second argument is that there are already existing laws that protect tenants. Under the San Jose Rental Dispute Ordinance, for example, landlords may not raise rent on apartments built before September 1979 more than 8 percent in a calendar year. It is already illegal to raise rent on a new tenant and after an old tenant has been evicted.

"Under eviction controls, all you're getting tenants is more protection in court for which they already have," says TCAA Government Relations Director Bob Hines. "The only way to protect themselves is by going to court, so how will eviction controls help then? That's the challenge of the debate."

The twofold solution, he agrees along with TCAA CEO Kathy Thibodeaux, is a strong education campaign to inform tenants of their existing rights, and imposing hefty fines on landlords who violate current rent statutes.

The third point of contention by TCAA is that tenants already can take their grievances to court, when they believe they have been unjustly evicted. But ACORN's evidence shows that most tenants don't. Legally, if a tenant is served a 30-day notice and then decides to sue the landlord, that tenant may stay in the unit for the duration of the lawsuit. The "unlawful detainer"procedure means that the court detains the premise until the issue hammers itself out. Should the tenant win, he or she can stay in the unit; should the tenant lose, the decision appears on the tenant's credit history--potentially damaging future tenancy.

According to Doherty and ACORN advocates, tenants usually never get this far, opting to move out before the end of 30 days or face an eviction on their credit record. Tenants can also move out before 30 days, return to the premises and see if the same landlord has raised the new occupant's rent. If so, those are grounds for a lawsuit. All these conditions, however, take time and money on the tenant's part. And there aren't that many lawyers willing to tackle such cases on their behalf.

"The problem is there aren't very many tenant attorneys down here because it's very difficult to sue. In the entire area, I know of one person who specializes in tenant law. The cases are very difficult to prove because the landlord doesn't have to have any justification to evict somebody," says Doherty.

But TCAA holds its ground, and its autonomy.

"The minute a landlord loses control, it means it's going to be hard to improve the quality of life for the rest of the renters who are there and should stay," Thibodeaux says.

Moving and Losing

Renter Jane Hermann hasn't been evicted yet, though she says she is counting the days when she will lose her Willow Glen cottage. She has long since stopped asking for repairs to the pre-World War II house. There was the time she asked her landlord to trim a nut tree in front of the house, and instead he cut it down, along with the other surrounding nut trees. Hermann knows she is literally sitting on prime property--her neighbor's home was priced for sale at more than $700,000.

She is reluctant to move out of the area, and even if she did, moving costs would hover between $5,000 and $7,000.

"A lot of people are leaving the valley," says Hermann, once a psychiatric nurse at Valley Medical Center. "A lot of people can't even afford to leave the valley. I'm going to wait until I'm forced into leaving. I don't want to--I've lived in the valley since '56. But I'd rather go out fighting."

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From the October 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.