By Kate Cimini | The Californian

Eufemia Aguilar has lived in her two-bedroom apartment on North Sanborn Road in Salinas for about 10 years. A garlic peeler at Christopher Ranch, she rises at 2:30 a.m. every day, packs her lunch and heads to work, leaving her 20-year-old son and 5-year-old grandson to sleep.

There are lots of problems inside her apartment — peeling linoleum, a stove that only sort-of works, mold from the slow drip-drip-drip of her upstairs neighbor’s shower. But Aguilar likes to focus on the positive.

However, her landlords have increased her rent by 30%, and then, a few weeks ago, they served Aguilar and some of her neighbors with a 60-day notice to vacate their apartments. They need to be out by Jan. 1.

Throughout the state, advocates have reported a slew of last-minute evictions such as these in the months before a new law that protects tenants goes into effect on Jan. 1. As a result, many local governments are placing a temporary hold on evictions.

Watsonville, Los Angeles, Menlo Park, Daly City and Capitola are among the latest cities to adopt temporary tenant protections of their own. Monterey County as a whole may be next; the Monterey County Board of Supervisors will vote on a temporary eviction control ordinance Tuesday.

“This is an urgent matter,” said Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, who plans to introduce an urgency measure at the board meeting.

Not only has his office been contacted by several tenants facing eviction, he said, but many who have received no-fault 60-day notices will soon face “unlawful detainer” actions, which immediately precede eviction.

“This will be a very strong defense to keep dozens of families in their homes, especially as they’re going into the holidays,” said Alejo.

The Tenant Protection Act of 2019 requires just cause to evict tenants and caps annual rental cost increases to 5% plus inflation.

After the bill’s passage, renter’s rights groups have reported evictions ramping up in the waning months of the year.

Sabino Lopez, deputy director for the Center for Community Advocacy in Salinas, has seen a wave of rent increases followed by eviction notices. He believes they would not be happening if it weren’t for landlords trying to flip properties in advance of the new law.

“It’s really unusual situation right now,” said Lopez. “I receive calls from people facing eviction (regularly), but I haven’t seen in the past this many phone calls, so many people facing the same problems. It’s really suspicious.”

Cal Property Management, which manages Aguilar’s apartment building, told The Californian that the evictions, affecting six of its 12 tenants, “had been in planning stages before the new laws were in place, financially the timing became available for the owner to start this project in January. We have given the tenants proper notice, in accordance to California law. This was not a response to (the new law) but a definite need of the building.”

The company said that the evictions are necessary “to do major repairs that would not be able to be done when a tenant resided in the apartment,” such as electrical upgrades and plumbing work.

Regarding the rent hikes, “any increases that were over the allowed amount for our area of 8.35% will be rolled back to the appropriate increase,” Cal Property Management said. The new law “will force landlords into maximum allowed increases when they have been deferring the rent increases for long-term tenants.”

Tenants are often on a very short timeline with eviction notices — they have a certain amount of time to respond to the notice, then only a few days to amend their responses.

Alejo, who was inspired by the moratoriums passed by Santa Cruz, Capitola, Watsonville, Seaside and others, hoped his measure would pass in time to help a number of tenants amend their responses.

Many tenants who came to Alejo about their eviction notices were worried about retaliation by landlords, such as a bad reference when they do have to move, or a judge siding with the landlord, leaving the tenant with an eviction order on their record.

“That makes it harder to rent,” said Alejo. “No tenant wants to have an eviction order on their record. But sometimes they have no choice but to fight it.”

Phyllis Katz, the directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance’s Salinas office, said because many of the ordinances place a moratorium on evictions between when local agencies took action and Jan. 1, some evictions that have already proceeded will have to be re-evaluated by their lawyers and the courts.

“In a number of cases, it appears that the landlords are trying to get ahead of the new laws that go into effect Jan. 1,” she said.

A 70% rate increase

In places like Capitola and Watsonville, this fight has already been fought. Thanks to the local ordinances, many people have been allowed to remain in their homes for the time being, such as Brenda Barnett.

Barnett, a longtime Capitola resident, learned in late July her building had been sold to C&C, a property management company. Weeks later, she was served a 70% rent hike, raising her rent by $845 a month.

While her rent increase was on the high end of the scale, the lowest her fellow tenants saw was $300, about a 29% rise in cost.

Then, eight days after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law, C&C sent Barnett and her neighbors a new notice: The company needed to make urgent repairs on the dilapidated building so everyone needed to move out.

An “old hippie” and disabled senior, Barnett is on Section 8 federal grant housing, and has been for a year. It has made a huge difference in her quality of life, she said, since she often doesn’t make in a year what her monthly rent costs.

Barnett said she and another tenant in the building on Section 8 received eviction notices before the others did, citing their Section 8 status.

She provided documentation of her rent increase, eviction notice and more. She expressed confusion and disillusionment — after all, she said, the management company still gets paid its rent. Why does it matter to them if it’s Section 8?

“I felt like I was a throwaway, a disposable,” said Barnett. “Not even a person, just an article, something you’d toss in the recycle bin. And then I got mad.”

Barnett and a number of her neighbors mounted an offensive against the eviction. In late October, they went to the Capitola City Council, which soon passed an ordinance invalidating this no-fault eviction, but they still need to pay their new, higher rents.

“We received word from the tenants, members of our community, that they’d received eviction orders and were going to be out of a home come the holidays,” said Capitola City Manager Jamie Goldstein. “The City Council didn’t want to see them become victims of a loophole in the state law.

“We looked into what was possible and saw that we could pass an ordinance effectively replicating the language from the state law.“

While many tenants remain in Barnett’s building, a few have left since the eviction notices were first posted to their apartment doors. While the Capitola City Council made the ordinance apply to anyone still in lawful possession of a unit, they couldn’t make it retroactive to let people back into their former apartments, Goldstein said.

“They’re destroying communities,” Barnett said.

Barnett alleges that the renovations she and her renters were supposed to leave to accommodate were, in truth, not nearly as in-depth as the company made them out to be.

“They’re putting lipstick on the pig,” she said. “They painted over termite damage and wood rot with dark paint. Inside the apartments, they replaced carpets, appliances, closet doors, but nothing that requires an entire building to move out.”

Since she and her neighbors won this stage in the fight against their property management company, she has traveled to other townships, such as Watsonville, in order to help other residents advocate for themselves in the face of evictions.

“I never wanted to be an investigator or an activist,” said Barnett. “But this is wrong.”

C&C Property Management did not return calls from The Californian seeking comment.

‘They could end up homeless’

Daniel Gonzalez, who heads the CCA, has seen more and more people coming into their Gabilan Street office and having emotional breakdowns over being evicted. Many, he says, have no place to go except homes that are already overcrowded, thanks to the housing crisis.

“This is something that even as a mental health issue, it really impacts the community,” said Gonzalez. “They could end up homeless. That has been very impactful: the stress, the anxiety that it’s causing families and children.”

“Someone has to be pretty heartless,” said Alejo. “For some, just getting the notice forced them to move immediately, or to turn down work because they couldn’t leave their families facing eviction.

If Aguilar has to move, she’s going to miss the community in her North Sanborn Road complex. It’s where her grandson runs and plays with the other children and buys ice creams from the paletera, where she and her neighbors trade off babysitting.

She’s going to miss the people.

Luz Hernandez lives kitty-corner to Aguilar, in the first apartment on the left. Her home is decorated with pictures of La Virgen, and every surface in the kitchen is laden with fruits, vegetables, and bottles of water. Her twin 18-month-old daughters were asleep in the next room, their 11-year-old and 12-year-old siblings looking after them.

Hernandez was so overwhelmed at the prospect of losing her community — her support system — and finding a new home by Christmas that she began to cry, just thinking about it.

She was completely blindsided by the eviction notice, Hernandez said. When she last went to the management office to pay her rent, they said nothing to her about an eviction, she said.

When she returned home, it had been stuck to her door.

Hillary, Hernandez’s 11-year old daughter, choked up when she thought about moving, wiping tears from her eyes before they could make their way down her face.

“I told my mom, I don’t care where we go, I just don’t want to switch schools,” she said, standing in her family’s kitchen, holding her 18-month old sister. She shifted position, moving the baby from one hip to the other while her mother collected herself.

Hillary faced bullying at her old elementary school, Jesse G. Sanchez, she said. When she got the opportunity to switch to Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, the kids weren’t always nice to her at first, but she “knows how to stand up” for herself.

Although she will have to switch schools next year regardless, she’s fearful that she’ll have to change to a school where no one will play with her at recess.

Hernandez currently lives in Salinas City Councilman Scott Davis’s district. Not only did the news of this set of evictions not surprise him, he said, but it was occurring across the county as well.

“Bottom line is, it’s a loophole, it’s being utilized, and being taken advantage of in our communities, especially in the city of Salinas and the Alisal area, where it’s difficult for a lot of families to make ends meet already,” said Davis.

“You’re going to see an increase in homelessness. Families, women and children on our streets,” Davis continued. “This may exacerbate that problem. We have reduced it in a small portion. These (evictions) have high potential to reverse the progress we’ve made on our streets.”

Despite the intentions of lawmakers, Davis said these measures may only postpone some of the evictions they are meant to help end.

“It’s intended for those who are doing the right thing, paying their rent and whose landlords are using this loophole in an unjust way,” he said. “It’s not a cure-all, not a panacea, just gives tenants extra protection they can use in court. That doesn’t mean they will get a stay of eviction: a judge will agree with us or they won’t get evicted down the road.”

Davis intends to introduce a proposal on renter’s rights in December.

“We have the perfect storm, so to speak,” said Davis. “We have to be very careful moving forward so we don’t exacerbate the issue.”

Kate Cimini is a multimedia journalist for The Californian. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.