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Preliminary court filings for eviction cases reached a five-year high in October with nearly 1,150 new court case filings during the month, jumping up nearly 30% from September, according to data from the San Diego County Superior Court. 

Advocates say that the increase in new filings — which are known as unlawful detainers — show that the once looming crisis of evictions is beginning to materialize in the region. 

Why this matters

Eviction is one of the leading contributors to homelessness. High rates of eviction could undermine efforts to combat the homelessness crisis, which is one of the most pressing issues for residents and government officials in San Diego County.

“Throughout the pandemic there’s been phrases (like) the ‘tsunami of evictions coming’ and it’s kind of been the narrative around the time protections or rental assistance was expiring,” said Gilberto Vera, a senior attorney with Legal Aid Society of San Diego. “But, protections and the rental assistance were extended or expanded, so that we hadn’t yet reached that point. We’re seeing the tsunami of evictions finally come a little over two years later.”

About 1,070 cases in October are civil limited unlawful detainers, which are designated for situations where the tenant owes less than $25,000 in rental debt. Property owners pursuing eviction for tenants who did not violate the terms of their lease agreement, otherwise known as no-fault evictions, also fall under this category.

According to the data, the majority of these cases — approximately 812 — involved cases who might have been eligible for COVID-related rent relief. The pre-pandemic high for all civil limited unlawful detainers filings was 855 back in January 2017.

November had a slight dip with about 846 case filings during the month across all categories of unlawful detainers, however, experts and advocates say it’s likely that that number will not fall much more over the next few months. 

“(This is) something that we have been saying that was gonna happen for a long time, that we were gonna start to see a huge increase in evictions and we definitely are starting to feel that,” said Jose Lopez, director of the San Diego chapter for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “It’s a very difficult time for a lot of people.”

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Several factors might have contributed to this spike according to housing advocates and experts, including the exhausting of emergency rental assistance funds, the expiration of the City of San Diego’s no-fault eviction moratorium at the end of September, and housing market trends driving rent prices up.

Emergency rental assistance was a lifeline for many tenants experiencing loss of income as a result of the pandemic, keeping tens of thousands of residents in their homes during an uncertain time. 

Regardless of whether or not a tenant was eligible for funds from the ERA program, guidelines around the program also offered protection from eviction while an application was being processed.

When funds for these programs were depleted earlier this year, however, many tenants that applied were left vulnerable to eviction and unable to access aid to rectify rental debt from the months that were not covered by previous rounds of assistance.

Some tenants like Lydia Morales, a single mom of three living in San Ysidro and a member of ACCE, have been able to work with their landlords to pay back what was not covered by ERA, stretching an already tight budget even more.

“I’m trying to pay, but I’m still struggling,” she said. “Finding another income was really difficult. I have a family. My kids need me and I’m not there, because I have to work to pay almost $6,000.”

For tenants facing eviction after the ERA program’s end, the current rental market has made it difficult for those displaced from their homes to find a new place to live. 

San Diego rents have risen about six percent this year, outpacing both the state and national averages by around two percent according to a recent market report. The current median rent price according to the report is approximately $2,384 — the fifth highest in housing prices among the nation’s 100 largest cities.

On top of a general lack of affordable housing options, many renters with incomes that do not meet application requirements, minimal rental history, or an eviction on their record often find additional difficulty securing an available unit.

These increases come as almost all of the tenant protections implemented during the pandemic have expired, including a no-fault eviction moratorium for residents in the City of San Diego which lapsed on Sept. 30. 

The only remaining eviction moratorium for City of San Diego residents is a protection for non-payment of rent due to COVID, applying to tenants who accrued rental debt after July 1. This does not apply to those with debt from months predating July.

The ending of many of these tenant protections that prevented most unlawful detainers from moving forward during the pandemic has essentially unpaused cases that might have been filed over the last few years.

“This is a lot of COVID hangover,” said Molly Kirkland, director of public affairs for the Southern California Rental Housing Association. “Folks for certain time periods couldn’t evict, then we had to wait to exhaust all the rental assistance options before a case could move forward.”

“What we’re seeing now is just kind of a backlog that couldn’t move forward in some cases and in other cases they didn’t want to move forward,” she continued. “Now they’re filing, because really that’s all that they have left as an option.”

Fault status is not tracked in the county’s available data on unlawful detainers, according to a court spokesperson, so it is unclear the extent that no-fault evictions are driving the number of cases filed. Regulations around no-fault evictions, regardless, have been a focal point for some cities exploring the strengthening of tenant protections moving forward.

Chula Vista recently adopted a new ordinance that will go into effect in March of next year, limiting what kinds of situations would allow a property owner to evict without a violation of lease agreements among other measures.

Mayor Todd Gloria and City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera recently unveiled a new framework for an ordinance codifying similar protections for San Diego residents. The legislation is expected to go before the city council early next year.

“Due to the high cost of living, more people are falling into homelessness than any years past,” Gloria said in a press conference last week announcing the framework. “That situation is driving our homelessness crisis and a lot of other challenges that (we) have to grapple with. This requires us to take decisive action on policy reforms at the local level that will keep roofs over the heads of San Diegans.”

While details around what the proposal will look like exactly are not yet available, the framework announced includes policy goals such as:

  • Amending city regulations to meet state tenant protections by implementing additional required notice for renters prior to a no-fault eviction.
  • Clarification on the difference between “no-fault” and “at fault” tenancy termination, as well as narrowing the requirements for circumstances that would result in a “no-fault” eviction.
  • Relocation assistance for those facing eviction without violating the terms of their lease.
  • Extension of the time required for seniors and disabled individuals to find new housing when giving a tenant a no-fault termination notice.
  • Additional time for tenants to solve issues that might result in an at fault eviction.

Nonetheless, many renters across the county are already beginning to feel the effects of tenant protections lapsing, placing strain on services like Legal Aid and homeless providers.

“It’s really scary for us as service providers to see this trend where more people are falling into homelessness than we’re able to house,” said housing program manager with PATH San Diego, Rebecca Samaha.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless estimates that for every 10 people that are placed in housing, 13 more fall into homelessness.

“During the pandemic, we saw an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Diego,” said Glen Hilton, director of community care at PATH.  “It is because of these unlawful detainer (cases) that the population is increasing in spite of all of the good efforts from PATH and the other providers in the area.”

The number of unsheltered individuals in the downtown area hit a record high for the fourth consecutive month, with about 1,706 people counted during the month of November according to monthly data collected by the Downtown San Diego Partnership. 

The last point-in-time count conducted by the RTFH found that at least 8,427 individuals across the county were experiencing homelessness — a 10% increase from the number recorded in 2020.

“We know that housing affordability and evictions are the number one contributor of homelessness and the available resources fall short as it stands right now to serve people who are experiencing homelessness,” Samaha said. “With rental rates ever increasing, the job of locating alternate housing for them just becomes more and more difficult.”

City leaders, like Elo-Rivera, acknowledge that policy reform to insulate tenants from eviction might come a little too late for those now facing unlawful detainer cases.

“There’s still folks who are falling through the cracks,” he said. “I think this (framework) is a really robust and important set of proposals that are being put forward here. It’s going to create a lot more stability, but we will not find the one cure-all for everyone who’s struggling with housing in San Diego.” 

“It’s about putting one measure in at a time, hopefully in the most comprehensive ways possible, and doing everything that we can for those who are struggling,” he continued.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Danielle DawsonREPORTING INTERN

Danielle Dawson is a former reporting intern for inewsource through a partnership between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute for Nonprofit News. Originally from San Diego, she joined the newsroom after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s...