How to Stop an Eviction When Locked Out in California

By Teo Spengler - Updated October 15, 2018
Sad woman covering face at home

Even the most upbeat person will find it hard to unearth anything positive about being evicted in California. The housing market is tight throughout the state. In popular urban centers with rent control like San Francisco, an eviction from a dwelling is often an eviction from the city, since finding reasonably priced alternative housing is next to impossible. Yet Californians are facing eviction every day, and it's wise to know enough about state and local landlord-tenant laws to navigate your way through the system. Unfortunately, this may not be enough to allow you to stop an eviction after lock-out.

What Is an Eviction Notice?

Everyone knows that an eviction relates to a tenant's right to the use of a dwelling unit. But you shouldn't think of it as a kind of light switch the landlord has within easy reach. Rather, it's a procedure, a stairway the landlord must walk up if she wants to get rid of a tenant. Note that the stairway is much longer and narrower in California cities with rent-control ordinances. These municipal laws are intended to protect tenants and create real obstacles to indiscriminate evictions.

The first step of that stairway is to give notice to the tenant. In California, you have to advise the tenant of an eviction in writing, and this legal document is called an eviction notice.

Why Do Evictions Happen?

An eviction is the legal procedure that follows from a landlord's decision to get rid of a tenant. It involves a variety of steps the landlord must take to reach his goal. Many states allow for no-cause evictions, and California is one of them. Basically, in no-cause states, a landlord can evict a tenant for any reason or no reason, as long as he provides proper notice. In California, a landlord can evict without cause by giving the required legal notice but only in cities without rent control. Further, there are exceptions based on state and federal laws.

For example, landlords cannot evict tenants based on illegal discrimination, which includes discrimination based on race or ethnic background. Nor can a landlord use eviction as a means to punish a tenant or get back against her for taking action against the landlord, like complaining to the city because the property’s heating system is broken or calling in the fire department to look at an unsafe electrical system.

California law generally allows for no-cause evictions, but it also provides for "cause" evictions. Generally, evictions for cause mean evictions based on improper actions of the tenants. Many evictions for cause involve failure to pay rent, or failure to pay rent on time. An eviction is also for cause if it is based on a tenant's breaking a term of the lease agreement or rental contract. Other causes for evictions in California include damaging the premises, becoming a nuisance (e.g., disturbing others with loud music) or using the property for illegal activity such as a center for drug sales or prostitution.

Note that cities with rent control do not permit no-cause evictions. Rent control laws restrict the amount of rent increase a landlord can request from tenants. These cities also use rent control ordinances to impose stricter, narrower eviction procedures. Which cities in California have rent control? There are quite a few, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hayward, East Palo Alto, San Jose and West Hollywood. Each has its own ordinance, and you should not make the assumption that all are alike. If you live in one of those cities, it is well worth your time to visit the Rent Control offices and learn about tenant rights.

In most cities in California, including those with rent control laws, a landlord can evict tenants if he wants to use the premises as his own home, or as a home for one of his close relatives. However, rent control cities impose greater restrictions on this type of eviction to prevent the landlord from simply getting rid of tenants to be able to boost the rent to market rate.

What Happens if the Landlord Changes the Locks?

The very purpose of eviction laws is to prevent landlords from taking self-help measures. Landlords are entitled to rent, but if they don't get paid, they are not allowed to take matters into their own hands. It is absolutely illegal for a landlord to empty your things from an apartment because you haven't paid the rent. Nor can a landlord change the locks to keep you out. In all parts of the state, this is illegal and it can result in severe financial penalties in rent-control jurisdictions.

What to do if this happens to you? You are probably best off talking to an experienced attorney about the most efficient way to proceed. Alternatively, if you live in a rent-control area, you can ask the Rent Board about appropriate procedure.

How Evictions Unroll in California

If you are a Californian and a tenant, you should know the basic framework for an eviction in California, so you can determine if an eviction is proceeding according to law or not. It starts with the eviction notice and it may, in some cases, end there, depending on the reason for the eviction and how you respond.

The first thing to understand is that not all eviction notices are created equal. There are very specific notices for specific violations of the rental agreement. Failure to pay rent is likely the most common issue that triggers an eviction notice. The basic exchange between a landlord and a tenant is one of the premises for monthly rent, so if the rent isn't coming in, it's obviously going to worry the landlord. In this case, the landlord prepares a conditional eviction notice, a 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. It must be in writing, and contain the full names of the tenants and the address of the property. It must state how much rent is owed and cannot charge any amount other than back rent (no late fees, utility bills, etc.), and it must specify the dates the overdue rent is for. The notice tells the tenant that the amount must be paid within three days of receiving the notice or the tenant must move out. If the tenant pays, the matter is over. If she leaves, the eviction is completed.

A similar procedure is used for a 3-Day Notice to Perform Covenants or Quit. You may get this notice in California if the landlord thinks you are violating the lease terms or the rental agreement terms in a way that can be remedied. For example, if the agreement doesn't allow you to have a roommate, but you accepted a roommate, the landlord might use this notice to tell you to correct the violation. The notice has to set out the violation at issue and give you three days to fix it or get out.

A 30-day notice is usually used to end a month-to-month tenancy if a tenant has been renting for less than a year. If a tenant as been renting for over a year, a landlord must use a 60-day notice. These are not always allowed in rent-controlled cities, so contact your local rent control office or city government office. Other notices may be used, as well.

If the tenant doesn't do what is requested under the 3-Day notice and doesn't move out within the notice period, the landlord's next step is to file an unlawful detainer action in court. This is a fast-tracked case with shorter deadlines than in normal lawsuits, but you will have a chance to appear and argue your case. The case continues through trial, and the judge or jury must decide if the landlord has the right to evict you.

If the decision is that the landlord has the right to evict you, the court issues him a Judgment of Possession and, sometimes, a money judgment for back rent and expenses of trial. If the court decides that you stayed on in the unit just to be mean, it can order you to pay extra money as a penalty. The landlord asks the court clerk to issue a Writ of Execution and then gives this to the sheriff. After a five-day notice to the tenant, the sheriff removes the tenant from the rental unit and changes the locks.

How to Stop an Eviction in California

You have many opportunities to stop an eviction in California, since it is a lengthy procedure, sometimes taking months before a court case results in a judgment. As a tenant, you need to have a working knowledge of the laws in your city and also a familiarity with the terms of your rental agreement. Ideally, you should read the agreement carefully before you sign it and negotiate terms that you cannot agree to follow. For example, if you cannot live without your cat, you need to find a place to live that allows cats, or negotiate permission with the owner of the building before you sign on the dotted line. In reality, it isn't as easy as it sounds in cities where the housing market is tight.

Know when rent is due and keep on top of it. If you fail to pay rent, your landlord has an easy way to evict you. If an exceptional event prevents you from paying on time one month, talk to the landlord about it as soon as you become aware of it. Don't hope he doesn't notice that you are late, because the odds are that he will.

If you get a 3-Day Notice, comply with the demand and pay up rent or stop violating the terms of the contract. Alternatively, talk with your landlord about it and come to a compromise agreement. If the notice is to retake the property for the personal use of the landlord or some other permissible eviction, talk with the rent board about it or see an attorney.

How to Stop a Sheriff Lockout in California

The sheriff lockout is the very final step in a lengthy eviction process. If you haven't been able to stop the eviction so far, you may be too late once the judgment is entered. You can take an appeal from the judgment of unlawful detainer, but this doesn't automatically stop the eviction process or the sheriff lockout in California.

Your best bet at this stage is to ask the court for a stay of eviction. This is a legal document, but there is no California form for it. You will have to bring in an attorney to help you write it up. You'll have to have a very persuasive reason to be awarded a stay. And the request must be filed as soon as you get notice from the sheriff giving you five days to leave the unit.

Now, this isn't something you can count on or rely on getting. Some courts and some judges simply never grant stays, and little that you can say will impact them. However, some do grant stays in the right circumstances. If you are granted a stay, you will have to pay the rent for the period of the stay. The amount of time granted in the stay varies from county to county and from case to case.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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