Finding fairness for tenants in a way a landlord can love

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

POSTED: 11/24/17

Author: Harold V. Mesick

Publication: San Francisco Chronicle: Opinion

Photo: Charles Harrity, AP

California’s Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act was passed in 2009 to provide legal aid to low-income residents. it was named for politician and activist Sargent Shriver, who worked to increase legal services for low-income Americans along with wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver.


The Wine Country fires have claimed lives and devastated communities. Now that firefighters have contained the crisis, survivors can begin to rebuild. Housing is a pressing issue. Santa Rosa, for example, has lost nearly one-fifth of its housing. Renters face complicated next steps that often end up in court as landlord-tenant disputes, adding more stress. Affected counties could benefit from an approach that we have been using in Santa Barbara County to make these proceedings more humane.

You might think it’s strange for an attorney who primarily represents landlords to praise a program that helps tenants facing eviction. But I’ve seen firsthand how the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act program can make landlord-tenant disputes more just.

At its best, it gives landlords their property back in good condition, often at a lower cost than an eviction. Tenants get time, space to raise grievances, and the opportunity to avoid the red flag on their record that they would risk in court. It’s transparent and fair. That’s why the program should be expanded throughout California.

The Shriver program has run housing mediation programs in six California counties since 2011. The program helps low-income tenants by changing court processes or providing representation. It’s helped people like John, a 71-year-old man whose apartment was infested with bedbugs. His landlord took steps to remediate the problem, but wanted to increase John’s rent while the infestation continued. John reached out to Legal Aid for help. The landlord relented on the rent increase without going all the way to court, saving the state time and money.

In my own experience, I’ve seen the impact of the program’s mandatory mediation component on eviction cases. The most common type of eviction case that I deal with might go like this. A landlord is trying to evict a tenant who has stopped paying rent. The tenant has no attorney. The case quickly goes to trial, unless the parties reach a rushed settlement in the courthouse hallway. The judge’s ruling is final. The landlord wins, but must pay for a costly eviction. The sheriff’s office must enforce the judge’s order. The tenant experiences the stress of eviction and receives a red flag on his public record, which will make landlords unwilling to rent to him in the future and contributes to homelessness.

In the pilot project in Santa Barbara County, however, that case might go differently. Instead of going quickly to trial, tenants and landlords enter mediation at least one week before court. An impartial “settlement master” helps both sides understand the process. Unlike in court, tenants may discuss things that aren’t legally admissible, but still matter to the people involved. Together, they reach an agreement with no surprises. The landlord gets a date when her property will be returned. The tenant departs voluntarily, without a judgment against him on his record.

One benefit to tenants of the Shriver process is more time. A tenant facing eviction often knows he will have to move, but needs a few days to find another place to live. That can be the difference between moving into another apartment or falling into homelessness. Avoiding that crisis benefits the tenant and the whole community.

Mediation is also more tenant-friendly than court, which can intimidate those without attorneys. A mediator advises both sides in a more hands-on manner than a judge. Tenants can speak normally, without complex procedures. They can explain what led to their dispute, such as problems with property maintenance or a personal crisis. That permission to be heard makes a distressing process feel more humane to the people living through it.

Finally, mediation usually results in a settlement agreement instead of a judge’s ruling, which benefits both tenants and landlords. Court is a risk for both sides; the outcome is uncertain and, when it comes, final. Mediation is transparent and flexible. Terms are carefully explained so everyone understands. For tenants, settling usually avoids getting a court-ordered eviction.

Because I frequently represent landlords in these cases, I know eviction is expensive. Landlords save money when a tenant departs voluntarily after settling. Also, as the current system favors landlords, the Shriver program makes the eviction process fairer overall. Greater dignity for tenants going through a rough patch, and less homelessness in our communities, benefit everyone.

The flexibility and transparency of mediation, the cost savings, and tenants’ ability to move forward without an eviction record make a painful time more bearable and fair for all involved. Fire-affected communities would especially benefit during their recovery. I encourage my fellow Californians to contact their local and state legislators in support of expanding these services statewide.

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