In a Nutshell: As the U.S. continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment remains high and millions of Americans are facing the possibility of eviction. We spoke with Jacqueline Ravenscroft, a partner at the Tobener Ravenscroft law firm in San Francisco, to learn more about tenant rights and how the situation is playing out in the Bay Area. She explained that Tobener Ravenscroft works on contingency, meaning the firm is not paid unless it wins the case. People who otherwise may not be able to afford it can secure legal representation with Tobener Ravenscroft. She also provided an overview of some of the main tenant rights issues the law firm deals with, and points people to the firm’s blog for the latest news on evictions in California.
The long-term economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and on global markets is yet to be determined. The novel coronavirus has not only affected the health of millions of Americans and caused more than 160,000 deaths, but it has also wreaked havoc on employment and financial security for millions.
Since March, about 50 million Americans — an unprecedented number — have filed for unemployment.
And, by the end of July, an estimated 28 million U.S. residents were facing eviction in the near future as the 120-day federal eviction moratorium included in the CARES Act expired.
While people may be left feeling helpless and hopeless by the unforeseen predicament they are in, there may be hope for some who are seeking help in avoiding eviction. People in low socioeconomic brackets living paycheck to paycheck are often considered subprime borrowers, which means short-term loans and credit cards are not even an option to help better their predicament.
Tenant rights law firms, such as Tobener Ravenscroft in San Francisco, may be able to help people stave off evictions while the country continues to navigate the pandemic.
We recently spoke with Jacqueline Ravenscroft, a partner with Tobener Ravenscroft, to learn more about the Bay Area firm, tenant rights, and how the firm is handling the pandemic.
“Tobener Ravenscroft LLP is the leading tenant rights law firm in the San Francisco Bay Area,” according to the company website. “The law firm has collected millions on behalf of its clients, serving more than 10,000 tenants who have faced wrongful evictions, intractable repair issues, landlord harassment, tenancy discrimination, and landlord-caused injuries.”
Tenant Rights and Legal Services
Ravenscroft said a large portion of the firm’s cases center around rent control issues.
“What we do is we represent tenants who have been forced out of rent-controlled units illegally and are suing their landlords or property managers,” she said.
Rent control is when a city legislates to put a cap on the amount a landlord can raise the rent each year for existing tenancies, Ravenscroft explained. Landlords can start new tenants at whatever market rate they want, but once the tenant is there, they must follow a schedule of increases over the years.
The other big component of rent control is that cities place limitations on why a landlord can evict a tenant, she said.
“For example, you can kick a tenant out for nonpayment of rent, breaking the lease, the typical things you can think of,” Ravenscroft said. “You can also kick a tenant out if you’re the owner and you or a family member wants to move back in. But you can’t just say, ‘I don’t like you,’ or ‘You’re complaining too much.’”
Ravenscroft said most of the law firm’s work is done on contingency, meaning clients don’t pay the firm anything up front.
“We take their case, we take the risk of their case,” she said. “We obviously pay our attorneys and we pay the cost of the lawsuit. If we lose the case, then we absorb those costs and you owe us nothing. If we win the case, we get a percentage of the settlement on the verdict.”
This means that a lot of people who think they can’t afford a lawyer actually can gain access to legal representation.
“The firm is dedicated to employee activism and sponsors all of its tenant lawyers to volunteer weekly at tenant law nonprofits, equaling nearly 500 community hours each year,” according to the firm. “Tobener Ravenscroft LLP is the largest tenant rights firm in California. Widely recognized as the leaders in tenant law litigation, the firm has represented countless attorneys and the San Francisco Tenants Union.”
Landlord Harassment, Wrongful Eviction, and Failure to Repair are Common Issues
Those cases in which a tenant has been illegally forced out of rent-controlled units are classified under wrongful evictions. Other common types of cases Tobener Ravenscroft sees are landlord harassment cases and failure to repair cases, or as Ravenscroft says, “slumlord cases.”
These are habitability cases in which good tenants are paying their rent but the landlord is not doing any repairs, whether it’s sewage overflows, rat infestations, or leaking roofs, she said.
“We force owners and property managers to repair,” according to the firm website. “Our team of tenant lawyers has fought aggressively to recover money damages and make homes safe.”
Regarding landlord harassment, Tobener Ravenscroft believes tenants have a fundamental right to live peacefully in their homes. The firm’s lawyers have recovered millions on behalf of renters who have been harassed out of their rent-controlled homes.
“We also take housing discrimination cases,” Ravenscroft said. “We’ve represented transgender folks. We’ve taken on racial discrimination, gender discrimination, religious discrimination — mostly where the landlord’s either refusing to make repairs or illegally kicking the tenant out or placing some restriction on the tenant’s ability to use and enjoy the unit.”
Ravenscroft said the firm has also represented clients who were being sexually harassed by landlords.
Other harassment tactics landlords have used to try to establish grounds for eviction include withholding rent checks.
“A landlord might collect your rent check for, let’s say six months, and not cash them, and then cash them all at once hoping that you’ve spent the money and your rent checks bounce or something,” she said. “You’re living in limbo for six months wondering if they’re getting evicted.”
With their in-depth knowledge of state and local housing laws, Tobener Ravenscroft attorneys have been aggressively fighting for tenant rights for more than a decade.
Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Ravenscroft said the law firm usually gets anywhere from 200 to 250 calls per week from tenants seeking representation.
“Since the pandemic started, I’d say the majority of those are people who are calling because they either can’t pay their rent, or can’t pay all their rent. Or they want to break their leases because they’re students who leased a place next to their university and now it’s online.”
Other calls are from people looking to break their lease because they are now working remotely and location is no longer a determining factor for their living situation. Then, of course, there are those who have lost their jobs and can’t afford rent at all.
Ravenscroft said the law firm has been updating its blog regularly with helpful information on tenant rights and COVID-19 in the Bay Area. And while court closures, mandates on evictions, and government orders are changing daily, if not more frequently, the firm strives to keep the information as up to date as possible.
Ravenscroft said she recently updated the article, “COVID-19: Eviction Protection in California During the Outbreak.”
“On March 27, 2020, Governor Newsom issued an executive order temporarily postponing the enforcement of residential eviction orders for non-payment of rent where a tenant’s inability to pay is because of coronavirus-related loss of work or income or inability to work either because of loss of childcare or because of a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus in the tenant’s household.” — Tobener Ravenscroft blog post
In June, the governor issued an order extending the postponement of eviction enforcement until September 30.
Ravenscroft said the legal details can vary by county, and the article addresses the laws in various parts of California.
“The overarching theme for California is that the Judicial Council announced that, even though courts are open for landlords to file eviction lawsuits, the courts are not authorized to issue summons for those losses until they allow it,” she said. “So there’s essentially a pause on issuing summons.”