In the midst of a years-long housing crisis, guest units – also known as “granny flats” – have offered low-income tenants an affordable housing option. Many tenants who rent out guest units are afforded the same protections as other renters, including protection from no-cause evictions. But some owners of these spaces try to skirt state and local residency laws—raising rents at will and evicting tenants without cause.
Ann Smith*, a domestic violence survivor in the San Fernando Valley, had moved into a guest house in March but was unable to pay her rent in June because her income was reduced significantly due to COVID-19. The owner wanted to evict her but was not able to do so under local eviction protections—he did not have good cause, and, due to the pandemic, most eviction cases were put on hold. So the owner alleged Ms. Smith was causing a nuisance and sought to evict her under an exception to the Covid-19 eviction stay laws, claiming Ms. Smith was a “threat to public health and safety.”
The owner, represented by a well-known landlord firm, needed a court order to invoke that exception. NLSLA attorney Jennifer Harkins represented Smith in a contested hearing where both sides presented evidence and argument to the judge remotely. The judge later issued a written decision denying the owner’s request for an eviction summons, finding the owner exaggerated her claims, which—even if true—did not amount to a public health or safety issue.
“It was clear the owner was trying to find a way around these laws intended to protect tenants, and low-income tenants in particular,” Harkins said.
But the owner did not give up. She sought a civil harassment restraining order against Ms. Smith. This time the hearing was in person at the Van Nuys courthouse, and Harkins and her supervisor, Trinidad Ocampo, were both present to represent Smith. The owner realized Smith was not going to give up, so the parties reached a settlement. The owner agreed to pay Smith $5,000 in relocation assistance, waive all back rent, and allow Smith to remain in the unit for two months while she looked for new housing.
“Low-income tenants are so vulnerable right now, and if we want to prevent them from becoming homeless, we need lawyers to fight for them in court,” Ocampo said. “Legal protections are critical, and so are the legal aid lawyers who can ensure they are being enforced.”
*name changed to protect client identity