California Law: Eviction

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Just like a marriage is terminated by divorce, a tenancy is terminated by an eviction. Eviction is the legal process a landlord uses to remove a tenant from a rental unit. In California, eviction is regulated by both state law and municipal rent control ordinances. Rent control usually offers tenants more protections than do state laws. Both landlords and tenants need to understand their rights and responsibilities in an eviction.

What Is an Eviction?

When a tenant rents an apartment from a landlord in California, the two parties enter into a contract known as a rental or lease. The terms of the contract allow the tenant to occupy the premises in exchange for a specified amount of money per month. A lease contract sets a specific period of time during which the tenant will live in the unit, usually a year, while a rental contract does not. If the agreement is not a lease, but rent is due every month, California law classifies it as a periodic or month-to-month tenancy, whether it is oral or written.

There are several ways a tenancy can end in California. Generally, most tenancies end when a tenant decides to move out and provides the landlord with an appropriate notice of their intention. The tenant leaves, the landlord finds a new tenant, and everyone walks away unscathed.

However, sometimes the landlord wants to get the tenant out of the premises but the tenant doesn't want to leave. At this point a landlord's only legal option is to evict the tenant.

What Justifies an Eviction in California?

The process of eviction yanks a tenant out of a rental unit and generally disrupts the tenant's life. That's why California regulates this area of landlord-tenant law. State law does not restrict the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant, other than prohibiting evictions on grounds that violate the Constitution, like evicting someone on the basis of race or religion, or in retaliation for complaints the tenant made about housing conditions.

Often a landlord wants to evict because the tenant is not living up to the terms of the agreement, failing to pay rent, paying rent late every month or keeping pets in a pet-free building. But it might be for other reasons having nothing to do with bad behavior on the part of the tenant, such as a desire to get a new tenant who will pay a higher rent. The state landlord-tenant laws in California do not prohibit this practice.

Does Rent Control Limit Evictions?

California allows its cities to enact legislation that alters the rights and responsibilities of the parties to a rental agreement or lease. And many cities in California have enacted rent control ordinances. Usually these local rules provide greater protections to renters than California state laws offer.

But it is not accurate to speak generally of rent control ordinances, since each city is free to offer the protections it deems best for its residents. Some rent control ordinances, like that of San Francisco and Berkeley, limit rent increases. This keeps a long-term tenant's rent low even when demand is high. Obviously, a landlord in this situation would have a big incentive to evict long-term tenants in order to rent to someone else at market rate. To prevent this, rent control laws limit landlords to "good cause" evictions.

A good cause eviction rule means that a landlord can evict a tenant only for certain, specified reasons. Usually these include bad tenant behavior, like failure to pay rent, paying rent late every month or breaking other terms of the rental agreement. Some also allow an eviction if the landlord or a close family member intends to occupy the unit as a primary residence. Evicting a tenant in order to raise the rent to market level is not permitted.

How Does an Eviction Begin in California?

An eviction in California always begins with a written notice. The landlord must give the tenant notice in writing, usually a three-day, 30-day, 60-day or 90-day notice. California law specifies when each notice is to be used and what it must contain. Shorter notices are used when the tenant can remedy the situation; longer notices are used when the landlord is terminating the tenancy no matter what the tenant does.

For example, if a tenant fails to pay rent, the landlord must serve a 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. To serve the notice means that it has to be handed to the tenant by the landlord or some other adult. The notice must specify how much back rent is due and when the rent must be paid: three days from the day of service of the notice. The notice tells the tenant that the alternative is to leave the premises.

What Is an Unlawful Detainer Complaint?

If the tenant doesn't do what the notice says, such as paying the rent due or leaving the premises after the 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit is served, the landlord's next step is to file a lawsuit called an Unlawful Detainer. If the landlord wins, he has the right to ask the sheriff to physically remove the tenant from the premises. If the landlord loses, the tenant has the right to stay in the rental unit.

This sounds easier than it is in practice. The legal documents for an unlawful detainer action include: a summons, a complaint, a civil case cover sheet and a certificate of counsel, and the landlord must pay a filing fee. The documents must be filed in court, then personally served on the tenants by an adult who is not a party to the action. Then a proof of service form must be filled out by the person who served the documents and that, too, is filed with the court.

What Happens After a Complaint Is Filed?

The tenant can respond to the complaint with an answer. However, it's also possible for a tenant to file any number of challenges to the complaint, including a demurrer, which challenges the validity of the eviction, or a motion to quash service if the complaint wasn't served properly. All of these take time for the court to analyze, and they must be resolved before the case goes to trial.

When the case is ready, the court sets a trial date. Both parties show up, with or without attorneys, and present evidence supporting their cases. In rent control jurisdictions, the landlord must prove the facts that justify the eviction.

How Do Unlawful Detainer Cases End?

In California, unlawful detainer cases can end in an unlawful detainer case ruling or in a satisfactory resolution. When the case goes through trial, either the judge finds for the tenant and there is no eviction, or the judge rules in favor of the landlord. In this case, it issues a judgment for unlawful detainer and writ of possession that allows the sheriff to remove the tenants from the property.

It is also possible for the landlord and the tenant to come to a mutual agreement regarding the eviction. This is most likely to happen when a tenant is willing to move out, but needs more time to find a new apartment. But it can happen in any case. For example, a landlord may agree to drop the eviction action and waive back rent if the tenant moves out by a certain future date.

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