On Tuesday, May 4, 2021, Enilda Rodriguez was facing what for many tenants may be one of the worst days of their lives. Following a long eviction battle with her landlords, Ms. Rodriguez was being locked out of the rental home she had shared with a roommate in San Pablo. The anxiety and uncertainty of her circumstances were exacerbated by the sudden announcement that a news reporter would be covering the lockout and the story of her eviction—without seeking her input. The story that was filed the following day only made matters worse.
“I was already beside myself due to the eviction,” Ms. Rodriguez told Bay Area Legal Aid. “I had to give up my home and my cats, which was devastating for me. One tiny soundbite could ruin my life. I couldn’t believe someone could try to embarrass and humiliate me this way. The landlords already got their house back so why did they do this?”
The article, published on the NBC Bay Area website, focuses on the difficulties facing landlords during the pandemic and the statewide eviction moratorium. Through selective emphasis and by allowing misleading statements by Ms. Rodriguez’s landlords to remain unchallenged, it tells a story in which low-income tenants becoming unhoused as the result of an eviction can be presented as a happy ending. And through an interview and fact-finding process that allowed Ms. Rodriguez’s landlords time to prepare and sit for interviews, but required Ms. Rodriguez to struggle to be heard at all, without notice or preparation, it stacked the deck in favor of that conclusion from the outset.
Ms. Rodriguez remembers: “I was at work at the time of the lockout, and the reporter made no effort to learn my side of the story. After a friend told me the reporter was at my former home, I was shocked but tracked her down in order to tell my side of the story. Despite my last-minute interview, there was no mention of the fact that this was legally a ‘no-fault eviction.’ Instead, the story made it seem like I was the culprit when l had done nothing wrong.”
Of course, there is another side to the story—one that might have been told had Ms. Rodriguez been afforded the same journalistic treatment offered to her landlords.
Ms. Rodriguez sought help early in the eviction process at one of Bay Area Legal Aid’s tenant self-help clinics. “What is especially gut-wrenching about Ms. Rodriguez’s story is that it isn’t unique.,” says Maya Iyyani, BayLegal attorney and Housing Clinic Coordinator, with whom Ms. Rodriguez consulted for legal information and advice at several points following the clinic. “Many tenants are experiencing housing and income instability for the first time due to the pandemic. Over the past year, we have worked with countless families who are facing eviction or other retaliation from their landlords. Although state and local laws are intended to protect tenants in Ms. Rodriguez’s exact position, she and many other tenants we serve have been failed by intentionally created loopholes, such as the Ellis Act, for which there are very few, if any, legal defenses.”
Although BayLegal did not represent Ms. Rodriguez in her case, our attorneys did come to know her story: a bartending job lost during the pandemic, months spent looking for work while deferring rent payments, and escalating conflicts with her new landlords. “The landlords knew we were living there when they bought the house and even got a $40,000 reduction in the home price precisely because we were there,” she says. “They knew exactly what they were getting into and what laws were in place to protect us at that time. As tenants, we did everything legally and when I returned to my job in November, I sent the landlord a letter saying I would pay 25% of the rent pursuant to the law, but I never got a response. Yet, they said that we didn’t pay rent for six months, which is misleading in an attempt to smear us. We tried to work with them, but they didn’t have any human compassion for us at all.”
Even these basics of the story paint a substantially different picture than the one presented in the NBC article. As a worker in an industry hit harder than most by the Covid-19 economic contraction, and a tenant in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the state, Ms. Rodriguez was precisely the person for whom the protections of AB 3088 and SB 91 (the laws creating California’s pandemic eviction moratorium) were designed. Despite the article’s lack of clarity on this issue thanks to its reliance on statements by the landlords, Ms. Rodriguez’s nonpayment of rent had nothing to do with her eviction and removal: she was fully protected by state law from eviction for reasons of nonpayment.
The loophole in that law which cost Ms. Rodriguez her housing is an exception for the Ellis Act, which allows more latitude to landlords evicting tenants if the landlords are taking a property off the rental market entirely. Knowing these basics of the laws behind the state eviction moratorium and the Ellis Act exemption—which were not referenced at all in the article—paints a different picture of the landlords, who knowingly purchased a home occupied by protected tenants in the middle of a pandemic, either planning or settling on the use of this loophole to remove them. (A friend of Ms. Rodriguez’s was allowed to make this point in the article, but without mention of the legal framework in question and without follow-up by NBC).
The use of this loophole leaves large numbers of tenants still exposed to eviction despite the intent of SB 91 to stave off a wave of removals during the public health crisis. Beyond Ms. Rodriguez’s own case, there is also evidence that the Ellis Act is not just a loophole in the law, but is being used widely as a pretext for removal of tenants whom landlords actually intend to remove for nonpayment. For this reason, a number of tenant rights and tenant organizing groups have been calling for county-level solutions to close the Ellis Act loophole. Betty Gabaldon, a tenant organizer with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) says: “I have seen so many instances of landlords mis-using loopholes to evict tenants that were supposed to be protected during this pandemic. I have seen a family of six get pushed out through a loophole, that was really set in motion because they asked for a basic repair to ensure the habitability of their apartment, and were met with landlord retaliation disguised as a legal eviction.”
Whatever the ultimate solution, it is clear that cases like Ms. Rodriguez’s do not represent happy endings. Nor does the journalistic process in this case represent a just and equitable approach to the truth of such stories. We can do better by our most vulnerable tenants, and we should expect better of our journalists in helping us to understand their situation.
Ms. Rodriguez points back at this larger context in closing her conversation with BayLegal: “Bottom line is, throughout the pandemic, the Governor said that we were all in this together. But in reality, the Governor and legislature let us down. They created this exception and they gave the landlords the tools to make us homeless. Obviously, we aren’t all in this together.”