Many tenants in California live in communities with rent control and/or "just cause" eviction. Unlike tenants in most of California, who can be evicted "for any reason or no reason at all," tenants who live in communities with "just cause" eviction protections cannot be evicted except for specified good reasons. Tenants can be evicted if they don't pay the rent, trash the place, engage in illegal activities, or disturb the neighbors. Tenants can also be evicted so that the owner can live in the unit, if the landlord is taking the unit off the rental market (pursuant to the Ellis Act), and for a very few other just causes. Foreclosure is not a cause for eviction in most California communities with "just cause."
Some lenders have tried to claim that state and federal law pre-empt local rent control and just cause protections. However, both state and federal laws specifically provide that local rent control and just cause eviction protections are controlling where those laws exist. That means that if local laws provide more protection for tenants, the local laws are controlling. Lenders may still try to make the argument, but tenants have the law on their side and may roll their eyes heavenward on hearing that assertion.
So how do I know if I'm covered under "just cause" eviction protections?
Ah, this question is a set up, as it allows me to explain some of the complexities of these laws. The following communities have both rent control and "just cause" eviction: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Palm Springs. San Jose has rent control, but no eviction protections. San Diego, however, has "just cause" eviction, but no rent control. A few other communities have mediation programs or very limited rent control. Those won't help you in this situation, and your "protection" is limited to that provided by state and federal law.
But it gets even more complicated. Some "just cause" laws provide protection to tenants who aren't covered by the rent control provisions of the local ordinances. Yes, it is confusing, but that's because the real estate interests sought (and received, of course) help from the State Legislature in limiting tenants' rights after communities with tenant majorities forced the passage of rent control and "just cause" eviction ordinances. This legislation, knows and the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act or, simply, Costa-Hawkins, imposed severe limits on local laws, exempting all single-family houses and many condominiums from rent control, and requiring that all local laws allow for vacancy decontrol. However, it did not prohibit local ordinances from protecting tenants in these units from unjust eviction, so the "just cause" eviction protections may apply even if your unit isn't covered by rent control.
And it's now even more complicated. The City of Los Angeles passed a moratorium in December 2008, prohibiting eviction of tenants from foreclosed properties for one year, whether or not the house or apartment is covered by that city's rent control law. That means, simply, that all tenants in Los Angeles are protected against eviction after a landlord's foreclosure.
Two other California cities, Richmond and Ridgecrest, have passed "just cause" eviction laws that apply to tenants in foreclosed properties. You can read the Richmond ordinance here and a blog entry on the Ridgecrest ordinance here. Tenants Together did excellent work on this one! Check here for the most current list of communities with "just cause" protections for tenants in foreclosed properties. Update 12/20/11: Merced has become the first Central Valley community to pass "just cause" protections for tenants in foreclosed properties. You can read more about it here. Unfortunately that legislation was repealed in 2012.
I am not going to try to explain the intricacies of all the laws here. The best way to find out if you're covered by the "just cause" provisions of your local law is to call the Rent Control or Stabilization Board in your community, a local tenants' organization, or a lawyer specializing in tenants' rights. You'll get better information more quickly by consulting those who answer these questions all the time. And I don't think I need to tell you that you should not depend on the lender for accurate information. Lenders often don't know the local laws, or hope that tenants don't, and try to evict after foreclosure whether or not they have the right to do so. (In Oakland, for instance, the City Attorney has been forced to take action against lenders who try to evict tenants in violation of that city's ordinance.)
What do tenants who are protected against eviction need to do to enforce their rights?
Many lenders will attempt to evict tenants in violation of rent control and "just cause" eviction ordinances. The first thing you should do is to make sure that the lender or loan servicer knows that there are tenants at the property. That means sending a letter to the lender or loan servicer (you'll find that on the Notice of Trustee Sale), informing them that tenants reside at the property being foreclosed and giving them contact information. If the Notice of Trustee Sale has a telephone number for the lender or loan servicer, call and ask for the name of the person handling the property, and address the letter to her. Make a copy of the letter, and mail the letter at the post office. Obtain a proof of mailing.
As I noted above, you should also contact the rent stabilization board or a local tenants' organization. Those groups will have the most up-to-date information on local laws, and will also know how to deal with specific lenders.
Then be very aware of the possible scams the lender might try, a few of which are:
1. Allowing you to stay without paying rent. Then after a few months, the lender either serves you with a 3-days' notice to pay rent or quit, or worse still, serves you with an unalwful detainer claiming that they served you with a 3-days' notice to pay rent or quit and you failed to pay the rent. If the lender offers to allow you to stay rent free, get an agreement to that effect in writing. It's likely that if you demand this, they will not allow you to stay without paying rent, but it will protect you from eviction.
If you receive a 3-days' notice, you must pay the rent. If you receive court eviction papers (an unlawful detainer), see a lawyer promptly.
2. The foreclosing lender files an unlawful detainer against the landlord, ignoring your very clear letter informing the lender of your presence and status. You need a lawyer to handle this--you can't
Some of the scamming has gotten so bad that San Francisco's Rent Stabilization Board is threatening illegal eviction lawsuits against miscreant lenders.
Basic information for tenants in the City of Los Angeles is here.
The San Francisco Tenants Union has information for San Francisco tenants here.