.Righting Rights

Legal group protects renters from eviction

In November 2023, Maria Hernandez was looking forward to the upcoming holiday season and spending time with loved ones. But her world was turned upside down when she received a notice to vacate from the property manager of her apartment complex in Santa Cruz. After 14 years of renting her Campbell Street apartment, the notice gave her only 60 days to move.

“It was very shocking for me,” Hernandez says in Spanish, her voice cracking with emotion. “I didn’t know what to do and Christmas was coming up.”

Wilder Associates, the management company of the Campbell Street property, gave Hernandez a “Notice of Termination of Tenancy” on Nov. 20. Despite being a model tenant, she was given until Jan. 20, 2024 to vacate—less than 90 days—with the stated reason for the eviction being the owner’s intent to “demolish or substantially remodel the Premises.”

Hernandez, a single mother of two, consulted with her English teacher and also leaders of her church, who are part of Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), a group that promotes community advocacy. They all directed her toward Tenant Sanctuary, a tenants rights education service in Santa Cruz County. After connecting with the organization, she was assigned a lawyer for just $50. Hernandez, who is on disability insurance for debilitating arthritis and is unable to work, is still living in her apartment while her legal counsel mediates with Wilder Associates.

Tenant Sanctuary is part of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, or EDC—a larger, countywide organization founded in 2020. The EDC is a collaborative effort between Community Bridges, Senior Legal Services and the Conflict Resolution Center. To date, the EDC has helped nearly 300 households involved in disputes with landlords. Each of the county-based organizations mediates at different stages of tenant-landlord disputes, seeking to resolve them without going to court.

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In Santa Cruz County, where the rental market is one of the highest in the nation, an eviction can prove catastrophic for families and individuals. Despite the success that EDC has had in keeping tenants in their homes, its leaders are concerned about the future of the collaborative with funding on track to run out by summer. 

Evading Evictions

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the world to stop in mid-March of 2020, many people who did not have the option of remote work lost their jobs.

The federal government signed into law the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in response to the shutdown of the national economy, which included a federal eviction moratorium for homeowners with mortgages backed by the federal government and those on government-assisted housing. The federal moratorium ended in July 2020, after which the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued its own moratorium. The CDC granted numerous extensions rolling into 2021, and the final extension ended in July of that year.

In California, a statewide moratorium on evictions extended  into 2022, well after federal rent and mortgage assistance programs ended. But many tenants who had already fallen behind on rent before the March 2020 lockdowns were not protected and less than six months into the pandemic, about 1,600 people had already been evicted in the state. Eviction cases after the state moratorium ended in June 2022 rose back to pre-pandemic levels.

The Eviction Defense Collaborative intervened at the peak of the pandemic to help tenants facing eviction locally. Ray Cancino, CEO of Community Bridges, says that at the outset of the lockdowns and subsequent job losses, his organization feared the oncoming wave of evictions.

“We were prepping for a concerning situation where we were going to see mass evictions,” Cancino says.

Community Bridges secured a $100,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to kickstart the project in 2020, but had trouble hiring lawyers to serve as mediators. Then, Senior Legal Services answered the call. The firm provides legal aid to seniors in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

“Community Bridges first approached us […] asking if we’d be willing to serve all ages for this program and, looking at what (was) going in the world, we said ‘yes’,” recalls Senior Legal Services Executive Director Tanya Ridino.

In addition to eviction mediation and defense services, SLS also works to address tenants’ concerns over the safety and habitability of their rentals by working directly with landlords.

“This is for landlords as well. It’s really better for landlords […] to have mediation services where someone’s going to help them talk to their tenant about these issues,” Ridino says.

Tenants seeking assistance can drop into one of the family resource centers run by Community Bridges, where representatives from Senior Legal Services, the Conflict Resolution Center and Tenant Sanctuary all hold walk-in hours throughout the week.

Ridino’s team typically steps in at the point in a tenant-landlord dispute when discussions mediated by the Conflict Resolution Center or Tenant Sanctuary fail and enters the county civil court system.

Now, the collaborative itself is in need of assistance. The initial grant money to start the project was supplemented by the Covid-era relief funding that the county was able to allocate for the project for a two-year cycle. Senior Legal Services  was then able to get a $500,000 grant from the California Bar Association for the 2023-24 fiscal year. The EDC is facing a dire financial situation – starting in July, it will have no grant funding.

“We were able to take over the primary funding for it […], but that funding was only for a year and that is coming to an end June 30, and it’s pretty devastating,” Ridino says.

Finding Funding

While the county has previously found ways to keep funding the EDC, the upcoming fiscal year’s budget is not looking promising.

“It’s a very difficult time right now to get new funding—from the county, anyway—for any of these programs that are losing state funds or other grants,” says County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios. “We have tremendous pressure on our budget, trying to respond to all of the natural disasters caused by climate change.”

The 2023 winter storms that wreaked havoc in the region strained the county budget with the cost of response and repairs. The county spent $122 million in 2022-23 in road repairs alone, and these numbers are set against deep cuts proposed for the public health sector and other services.

“We’re barely trying to keep programs alive, so that it’s going to be a very difficult decision and the board […] will be weighing (this) during the budget hearings,” Palacios says.

The state, another potential source of funding for programs like EDC, is also in bad shape financially. Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $30 billion in cuts to education and climate change initiatives to stabilize a $56 billion deficit.

Despite the bleak financial projections, the collaborative’s leaders say that elected officials should continue finding ways to invest in a program that prevents homelessness in a county struggling with a housing crisis. Cancino says that the EDC’s work prevents homelessness and that elected officials should get behind their efforts. 

“The biggest (challenge) has been having local electeds actually do what they say they want to do, which is prevent homelessness and evictions, and actually having that backed up with support and financial plans that are not predicated on grant funding, or one-time-only funding,” Cancino says.


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