They relieve themselves on floors, set fire to drapes, smear walls with excrement, toss drawers and dishes and mirrors out windows, break windows, are blasting the 2 Live Crew or Barbra Streisand or Brahms’s Third Symphony at eardrum-cracking levels, stopping up toilets with bloody Kotexes, attacking neighbors with guns and knives and two-by-fours and globs of spittle and shrill fuck-yous, harboring 19 cats or 11 yapping mutts or underage delinquent boys, selling women, selling drugs, using drugs, beating women, beating children, beating the mutts, and, of course, nobody’s paid rent. Complaints like this bring landlords to Kimball, Tirey and St. John, one of seven San Diego law firms that do only evictions.
Slightly more than half the city of San Diego’s population rents its primary residence. Each month, 3000 to 4000 of those renters are evicted. Ted Kimball’s firm represents landlords in some 20 percent of these actions, called unlawful detainers. Their clients include the mom-and-pop owners of one rental, as well as major apartment complexes, the San Diego Housing Commission, and the Veteran’s Administration. The firm now averages 1200 to 1500 trials per year, with actual losses to landlords of not even one percent “We focus on one thing,” says Kimball, “to get the landlord back in possession as soon as possible In most cases, if a client calls before four-thirty, we can file a three-day notice to pay rent or quit or a 30-day notice to terminate tenancy, and one of our process servers will serve the notices that same night.”
Kimball has offices in San Diego and Orange County. Five attorneys and a staff of 35 share the top floor of the old but comfortable Radovich building at 1140 Union Street Part of that staff is an in-house process-serving division — Quick-Serve.
Five o’clock Thursday evening. One woman and three men lean over desks in the bright-lit, windowless room that houses Quick-Serve. This could be the underground bunker for a small Third World country that fears imminent invasion. A county map covers half one wall; red lines mark out areas covered by Quick-Serve’s four process servers. Officer manager Renee Kline answers one after another of her three telephones, rapidly scratches notes. The men, all process servers, are “routing out papers,” sorting eviction notices into the order in which they will deliver them.
Process serving, the men say, can be hazardous. Gray-haired, gray-bearded server Bob Banse stands right under six feet. Broad shoulders, big chest, thick legs fill out his gray sweat pants, polo shirt. “Ones that get pushed around,” he says, “are either small or have a big mouth.”
Banse adds, “I’ve walked up and down 44th Street and Marlborough — meth reeks, it has a particular horrendous smell to it — I walk by, I say to myself, They’re cookin’ in there.’ And in Southeast San Diego not long ago, I served an eviction notice, and after the tenants got it, they burned down the house.”
Kimball rushes in, hands Kline a sheaf of papers, rushes out. Kline’s phones keep ringing. Banse reads aloud from names typed atop a three-day notice to pay rent or quit: “John Doe, John Doe, John Doe, and Jane Doe.” Banse strokes his beard and, in a gruff voice, asks no one in particular, “How can landlords rent to people whose names they don’t even know?”
Ray Baumgardner, who delivers evictions in North Park, Hillcrest, the beach area, and La Jolla, answers, “Greed.”
Kline hands Baumgardner a paper. “We did an eviction on this Sanders four months ago and several times before. He’s a pro. He’ll probably evade.”
About pros Kline says, “We evict some people from one apartment complex to the next. They’ll move in on a special, where you pay a half-month’s rent down to get in. They pay that and then no more. You try to serve them and they dodge service, then wait until the last day to file an answer. You have to get a hearing date in 10 to 20 days, and all that time they’re living rent-free. It drives landlords nuts. Some of them don’t have money to cover it, especially landlords we call the moms-and-pops, people who own one or two houses.”
Eviction, the group agrees, doesn’t happen only to the down and out. “This one couple, their house had a view of the ocean, of downtown La Jolla,” says Baumgardner. “I served them for six months, every single month, with a notice; hardly ever went to a case, they always at the last minute paid. They tell you they have cash-flow problems.”
“Rich folks,” says David Beale, whose route takes him through the North County coastal area, “always have cashflow problems.”
Baumgardner continues. “Sometimes people will tell you the whole story of why they don’t pay their rent. Rich people are more likely to do that than poor people. Poor people, eviction’s like everything else in their lives.”
“We had a case several years ago,” says Kline, “the tenant, essentially a pimp and con man, was renting a $200,000 home He had three girls there, all pretty, all driving sports cars, all wearing pagers. When we tried to serve them with an eviction notice, they evaded. I finally caught one of the girls. It went all the way to a lockout. The marshal broke down the door, guy was still there. Dirty magazines all over the floor. One closet full of dirty magazines. Out in the garage he was making false IDs. It ended up that the El Cajon vice squad came. When they brought him out of the house, I was expecting this sort of average-looking guy, and here he was, this nerd.” Banse slips on his jacket, pulls on his PadreS cap, snaps the bill down over his forehead, sticks his papers in a file folder, puts the folder under one arm, and heads through the hall, down the creaking elevator, and out onto already dark Union Street. “I show up at the office about five, try to be out by five-thirty.” He grins. “It’s a good time to start work. People haven’t had time to get all souped up and crazy on their drugs.”
At the telephone booth outside King Stahlman’s Bail Bonds, a woman, with three children dressed for summer shivering around her, speaks urgently in Spanish into the telephone. Men and women, jackets stuck with tags that announce “JURY,” walk together out the courthouse jury door. An old woman, heaped shopping cart next her, snores on the bus bench. Her feet are wrapped in rags. In the parking lot near Stahlman’s, Banse climbs into his silver Pontiac Sunbird. Forty-eight-year-old Banse started serving legal papers when he was 18, has done it off and on for 20 years, the last two for Kimball’s firm. “I was a roadie for a long time, for Rufus and Chaka Khan, the Little River Band, Eddie Van Halen. Every now and again I drag out my guitar and whack on it and write a few songs; it relieves tension.” Banse arranges his folder by him next to The Thomas Guide to San Diego County, a flashlight, roll of masking tape, bail-point pens. As he weaves through after-work traffic up G Street toward 94, Banse says he works six days a week, puts in 100 to 150 miles per day. He has 15 papers to serve this evening, three-day notices to pay rent or quit and 30-day notices to terminate tenancy.
“Process servers can’t knock on your door before six a.m. and after ten at night. Then you become a nuisance. You get pros, they’ll leave before six and come home after ten to evade service You get a feel for it. I can tell by looking at an address, These guys won’t be home before ten. I’ll catch ’em in the morning.’ ”
Driving east on 94, Banse enters the stream of cars heading home from downtown offices. Feathery clouds drift across a full moon. The Sunbird picks up speed. “I cover from Normal Heights to Kensington and East San Diego to the border. All these little hills, all the canyons that go everywhere and nowhere drove me crazy at first. Not many servers have lasted in this area like I have. It’s a pack of wolves out there; if they pick up on fear, you’ve had it.”
He carries a two-foot iron bar and stun gun, but he’s never used them. “I’ve had pistols pulled out on me and knives. I was executive director of International Bodyguard Association, so I’m familiar with weapons. If you feel intimidated, your first instinct is to go for the weapon and use it. In this area if you did that, all hell could break lose. Also, when you work as a server, you are going to be back; you have to come here every single night.
“Anyone who knows weapons knows if somebody pulls something and they’re going to use it, they’re going to use it on you right then; they aren’t going to give you bullshit about what they’re going to do to you. So anytime somebody pulls a weapon and starts mouthing off, you know you’ve got an edge or you hope you got an edge on ’em. That’s where expertise and vocabulary come in. You tell ’em, ‘Do you really want to catch a murder beef behind this stupid paper or what?’
“Couple weeks ago, I’m knockin’, I hear a woman call, ‘Lawrence, Lawrence, someone’s at the door.' This guy opens up, bigger than me, says he’s not Lawrence. Now I knew he was Lawrence because she was calling him Lawrence. He wouldn’t accept the papers.
“By law you have to get papers as close to the person as you can. They don’t have to accept them and sign for them anymore; that was years ago when this job was pretty tough. So I dropped them at his feet and said, ‘Hey, I heard her. You’re Lawrence and I know it and you know it.’ So’s I’m walkin’ downstairs and he got uppity, ‘You gonna cause a scene at my fuckin’ house? You lookin’ to get punched?’ A scene like that, you turn around and say, ‘No, I want no trouble with you whatsoever?' I said that and went on my way.
“But if I had a gun, there’s been times to where if I woulda pulled it, I woulda shot somebody. So it isn’t worth it. I don’t approach it in a manner to where these people are scumbags, even if they are. I try to give them some dignity, respect. That saves my ass.
“The beard helps. Only reason I have it this short,” he rubs the beard, whose trimmed ends fall over his collar, “was I was on the hunt for a wife. Now I found her, I guess I’ll let it grow back. It was down to my waist. But I still look like another hippie or downtrodden soul, which I am.” Banse grins. “One check goes for rent, one check goes for bills. If I get any leftover for food or clothes, I’m ahead.”
Banse turns off onto the University Avenue exit. “There’s nothing people out here have done that I didn’t do when I was young. I’m streetwise. I apply that knowledge. At 32nd and National I had six or seven papers to serve. The buildings had boarded-up windows, broken bottles, you name it. Immediately I get there, 20 gang members surround me. One guy out of them never moved. He sat quiet on some stairs. This is the guy I want to talk to, obviously one of the top guys. I say to him, ‘I’m lookin’ for these guys, and all these are is eviction notices, no big deal.’ It was a real good confrontation between him and me; and if it weren’t for him, given the knives and chains pulled out, because the gang members were only waiting for his nod, ‘Okay, let’s get the white guy,’ it could have been trouble.”
Banse slows, checks the top paper for his first call. “In one way what I’m doing is following cops around. Every time a cop makes an arrest, I’m right behind him with an eviction notice Because 95 percent or even 97 percent of what I serve on is drug houses, situations in which welfare recipients are taking the money and spending it on drugs. Children are being involved.”
Banse has been speaking matter-of-factly, but now his voice roughens. “I’m a single parent. I have a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old. I brought them out of a similar situation, one where drugs were being used. So to me, following police around and evicting from drug houses is a good thing. If someone came up and tried to sell my kid dope, I would break their fuckin’ neck in a heartbeat.”
Banse heaves a huge sigh, taps fingers on the steering wheel. He turns onto Market. A city bus (dimly lit within, faces pressed against windows) passes. “Big complexes I’ve done that were drug infested, when you go through and wipe out one of those, there’s satisfaction knowing you have taken one element and removed it It’s cutting out a cancerous growth. I’ve watched when a new landlord buys a complex and cleans it up, gets security gates, security guards. Things get better.”
Banse slows, rolls down his window, searches doorways for an address. “Very few times I feel the tenant’s getting a raw deal; 95 percent of the time, the tenant needs to be evicted for one reason or the other. They’re not taking care of their obligations. And in my area, nine out of ten times what they’re doing with their money is dope. In extremely bad cases, I look at the kids and feel so sorry for them — not that I’m evicting them, but that they’re in an environment they have no way of getting out of. So I hand the parents the paper; and to me it is the hope of being an angel for the kid, and sooner or later the authorities will get involved and take the child from that parent until such time as they’re able to prove they’re worthy to take care of that child.”
Pulling into the curb, Banse smiles. “There hasn’t been a type of person on the face of this earth I haven’t served. Even preachers. First time I did that, I thought, ‘My God, what am I doing, evicting a preacher?’ One thing about this work, it’s not biased. If you’re not living up to your obligations,” Banse grins, “Bob is going to come to your house That’s how it works.”
The first address is a one-family, two-story house on 21st Street, off Market. The three-day notice is addressed to Life Aguirre and “John Doe.” Banse parks across the street. “We never go far from the car," he says, grabbing the paper. The street lamp casts a yellow glow only a few feet past the comer. A dingy picket fence surrounds the house; the house sits back from the street, shrouded in murky fog. “Coming up to a place,” Banse whispers, as he strides across the hard-packed, grassless yard, “what you look for are lights on, movements of bodies behind curtains.” A scrawny black dog approaches. Banse puts out his hand, lets the mutt, whose stub tail begins wagging, sniff his fingers. “If dogs are going to be aggressive, they start walking toward you and barking.” Banse laughs. “A good watchdog will keep his mouth shut and come up and nail you.
“Only time I got nailed by a dog, it was early morning, I went walking down the driveway, and I could see a huge German shepherd. He was on a chain. He started barking. I was watching him when out from under the car came a pit bull and grabbed my ankle”
From the porch, the house appears empty. Banse knocks twice a hard rap on the wood door. “No one’s home,” he says, his voice loud in the silence. “I’ll come back in the morning.”
Each paper Banse serves comes equipped with a cover sheet on which he notes what action he took. Sitting in his car across from the empty house wind stirring trees overhead, in the light cast from the dash, Banse writes down date and time of his attempt to confect the tenants.
Along University Avenue, stores are closing, people go in and come out of cafes and bars. Banse pulls up to a stucco house in the 3400 block to serve a three-day notice. Five young black men walk past; keys hanging off their belts clank; they idly study Banse, who moves quickly onto the unlit porch. Inside, from the back of the house, lamps glow. A television set, turned at top volume to CBS news, pours out Dan Rather’s hoarse croak. Banse raps his knuckles against the door. A woman in her mid-30s opens the door an inch. “Who is it?” a tremulous voice asks.
“My name is Bob, Janet I have some papers for you.” She opens the door farther. Rather’s pale face, jaws shaded with dark stubble, fills the television screen. Odors of dinner cooking, an aromatic beef dish, perhaps stew, hit the cool outdoor air. Banse hands out the folded paper.
The woman takes the paper and without reading, says, “I just got out of the hospital. How does he expect me to move in three days?” While a cat winds round Janet’s bare brown leg, Janet says that she’s been sick for several months, that she’s lived here a year. Banse suggests Janet confect her landlord, talk things over with him. Maybe something can be worked out.
Hopping off the porch, heading toward the car, Banse explains, “I do that, use her name, to identify her. I’m not trying to intimidate her. It’s that immediately they know you know their name. Also, if it’s not Janet, the person will say, ‘I’m not Janet.’ So you know you do not have the defendant. Then you ask, ‘Is Janet there?’ Or if it’s a paper you can subserve, you give it to this Doe and get her description, and if they fit and it’s really Janet, you have an automatic personal instead of a subserve You’re trying all the time to get a personal. It’s a game in a way.”
Banse feels sorry for Janet. “Sometimes people have bad breaks, like that woman being in the hospital. Or you get laid off a profession that has quick turnovers, like construction, and that you can’t do anything about, but 95 percent is mismanagement and drugs.
“Some welfare recipients may pay rent of $60 a month for maybe a $450-a-month apartment, and they’re getting evicted for nonpayment. I ask you, what are they doing with the money? My God, you can collect Coke bottles and get up $60.”
Banse stops at a boxy green stucco in North Park. Low houses on either side in which no one is home. Open the gate to go past a chain-link fence Vines grow up and over the fence Curtainless windows form dark square blanks. Breeze scrapes thorned branches against the wall. The house is absolutely quiet. Banse knocks. Stands on one foot, then the other. A thin orange tabby steps onto the concrete pad that serves as porch. Meows. Peering through one window, Banse says, “It looks as if they vacated, which will happen sometimes even before it gets to the unlawful detainer stage, tenants will move out.”
The next paper brings Banse to a frame house close to a graffiti-stained apartment building off Imperial. Rust-pocked Tbyota Celica pulled up at the side of the house This three-day notice to pay rent or quit has two names on it, both female Banse knocks. Scarred door opens an inch. Pekingese sticks out its nose Barks. Brown hand grabs the dog by its collar, pulls dog back.
“My name is Bob. I have some papers for you. Are you Teresa or Barbara?”
Door opens farther. Heat pours out. “My name’s Mary,” the woman sleepily answers. Banse asks if Teresa or Barbara are home “Naw, they ain’t.” Banse hands over the papers. The woman shrugs, grasps the papers, closes her door.
Back in the car, Banse says, “She didn’t act as if she didn’t expect this, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she were one of the two defendants. Tfechnically, though, this is a subserve.” He takes out his bail-point “Got to get down the description of the Doe: Female, black, five-nine, 140 pounds, 38 to 39.”
On Market again, Banse stops before a newish, block-long series of two-story white buildings. Eight-foot iron fence surrounds the complex, which is, Banse explains, San Diego Housing Commission property. Banse speeds past the gate, across a sidewalk bordered by well-tended lawn, under globed lamps that beam across the grounds, up stairs to the second floor. From behind the closed doors, television dialogue rises and falls, radio music thrums lustily. Silhouettes pass behind light-gilded windows. Farther down the second floor walkway, three young black males knock at a door.
The paper Banse is serving lists three defendants, all women. The door opens. A woman, mid-20ish, dressed in floral-print tunic and matching stirrup pants, greets Banse pleasantly. Behind her the living room is dark, and beyond the living room, in the kitchen, a woman and two children lean over the table, spooning soup into their mouths. A third woman joins the woman at the doot Pleasantly enough, the three women identify themselves as the defendants, take the paper Banse holds out.
Heading back down the stairs, Banse shakes his head. “Three defendants means three people paying rent. What are they doing with the money?”
On the walkway, Banse slips past the three young black men who stand, heads together, examining an opened, foil-wrapped package of rock cocaine. One young man fingers the five or six small rocks, says to the other two, “This doesn’t look like it’s enough.” They pay no attention to Banse.
Banse drives then onto 43rd, searching in darkness for an address. “I recognize the name of this one,” he says. “We evicted her last year, and now they have a judgment against her” He slows. Peers out at ill-lit numbers along brick commercial buildings. “This should be it right there.” Banse stops, looks again at the address on the sheet, which doesn’t match any address he’s seen. “The address is completely bogus. She either knows what she’s doing or it’s a typo, but either way we get paid for it.”
Past houses whose windows are criss-crossed by wrought-iron bars and apartment buildings hung with For Rent signs, Banse squints, studies house numbers. He stops at the 4600 block of Orange before a duplex. One side is lightless. Through windows at the address to which Banse heads, candles flicker. Banse gathers his paper from the stack, says, “The electricity has probably been turned off.”
Banse knocks. Heavy footsteps approach from inside. Door opens an inch. “My name is Bob, Karen. I have some papers for you.” A jowled female face— swarthy skin, gold-rimmed glasses riding the bridge of a long nose — pokes out. The woman eyeballs Banse. Laughs. “I’m Karen and I’m moving tonight. And I’m not opening the door any farther, and you’re not giving me any damn papers.” “You’ve been watching too much TV. It’s 1991. We don’t have to serve them hand to hand anymore,” says Banse, equably. She slams the door. Banse sighs, slips the paper through the space at the bottom of the door. “It’s a complete service because she identified herself to me as the person we want. I saw her. Nine out of ten times in this area, it’s not the first time people have been evicted, so they know how much time they have, they know under what conditions they can be served, can’t be served, and they run it to the end.”
He looks at his watch. “Tfen till seven.” In quick succession, Banse serves three-day notices at a duplex near College and Adelaide (where, again, electricity has been turned off and the house lit with candles and kerosene lamp). He delivers a foreclosure to a couple living in a two-story, brick row house along Delta, off 43rd. The woman who takes the notice shows no emotion. She does not look at the paper but merely thanks Banse, then shuts her door. At a beige stucco, set back from the street, wide picture window out which lights blaze, a smiling brunette opens the door, says, “Great, the pizza’s here!” When Banse gives her a three-day notice to pay rent or quit, her lace falls.
Many places to which Banse goes during the next hour he’s been before. At one, all defendants are “Does”; the landlord did not know the renters’ names. “Some landlords I can tell right away they’re greedy. All they want is the money. What really pisses me off is that once they start litigation, they’re not supposed to accept money because it invalidates what we do. If we have a hard case and you serve papers, and then the landlord takes $200, then you have to start all over again; and the tenants know who you are, and they evade like crazy, and you have to stake out.
“My fees for a stakeout are normally $25 an hour. But sometimes if people piss me off enough, I will take my own time and stake them out. That is a part of the game I like. You get your little bedpan and sit in the car for hours until somebody finally comes out the door and I pop them.”
Traffic has dwindled when Banse pulls off University into the parking lot of a new, three-story apartment complex. Banana trees are planted around the entrance. Next to the building is a U-Haul truck. “This is a security building, but somebody’s going to come out in a minute because of that U-Haul there,”
Banse stands under the bright-lit archway by the front door. “In a security building, I either prearrange with the landlord or start leaning on buzzers. Some buildings, there’s so much traffic in and out, all I have to do is sit for five minutes and someone will come or go, and then I walk right in behind them.
“This place is pretty ritzy, nice laundry area, pools. College students and yuppies live here. You can get more trouble out of college students than out of crime-ridden areas. The students are spoiled by their fathers and whatnot and think they own the world.”
The U-Haul’s user rushes out, Windsor chair filling his arms. Banse strides past the chair-mover, through the door, down the hall. He knocks at number 202. The door is fitted with a peephole. Banse knocks. “One of my tricks is that these peepholes work both ways. People love to come to the door and stay quiet, especially when they know they’re getting evicted. So you knock like we’re doing and pretty soon the peephole goes black, so you wave at them. Automatically intimidates them.
I mean, automatically. They think, ‘Oh, shit, they know that I’m standing here.’ They say, ‘Who is it?’ ”
No one comes to the door.
In the Encanto area off Imperial and 63rd, Banse drives uphill, pointing as he goes. “This house on the corner I’ve evicted people, this one here.”
Banse is on his way then to serve three-day notices in a somewhat unusual situation. One person has rented three houses on a large comer lot and sublet the houses to other people. No one has paid rent for several months. Banse speculates that the original renter blew town and took the rent money with him. Whatever, Banse must serve residents in each house. Because the residents’ names aren’t known, the notices are addressed to “John Doe.”
Minutes later, Banse noses the Sun-bird through tight turns, up an unlit and winding, bumpy, narrow driveway. Atop the hill, Banse pulls to a quick stop just in front of an assemblage of vehicles: two big Harley-Davidsons, two pickups, a banged-up Datsun coupe. Over the hill’s crest, to Banse’s right, metal gleams under the full moon. Squinting, he counts out some dozen wrecked vehicles, lets out a low whistle. “Looks like a private junkyard.” Tb Banse’s left, past the Harleys and parked pickups and car, lights twinkle from a distant one-story cabin. Banse opens his car door. A dog barks. Once. Trice. The wind scuffles streamers tied to the Datsun’s aerial, picks up a scrap of paper at Banse’s feet. A thick-chested German shepherd, teeth bared, rushes out of high grass toward Banse Right behind the dog run two tall, lean men in blue jeans, black T-shirts, leather vests. The two could almost be twins: early 30s; long, black hair; long, stringy black beards; thin arms scrolled ’round with tattoos; bulky rings on the three middle fingers, several of the rings silver modeled into human skulls, with eye sockets set with rubies. Gripping the growling shepherd by his metal-studded leather collar, one of the two men demands of Banse, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Banse’s answer comes easily, laconically: “My name is Bob. I got some papers for you.”
Immediately, one man takes off running back toward the house. He’s met halfway by three men and two women, who form a phalanx and stride toward Banse. The women (short, dark hair cut in spikes, mouths lipsticked in a red kiss-me pout) wear leather miniskirts, knee-high leather boots. Meanwhile, the second man takes the papers Banse holds out toward him. The dog strains against his collar. Banse turns, gets in his car. “I’m not out of here yet,” he laughs, driving back down the hill toward the road. “I have two more houses to serve.”
The second house sits around the comer at the hill’s bottom. Banse knocks. An ash-blonde in her mid-30s answers. Again Banse offers the papers with “My name is Bob. I have some papers for you.” She takes the papers. Nothing in her expression betrays surprise. Banse nods toward the unlighted house next door, the third to which he is to serve an eviction notice, asks if she knows if the tenant is home.
She doesn’t, she says. Then adds, a gap-toothed, pleasant smile, “There’s a possibility he died last night.”
Cruising down out of the hills, idling to admire at the horizon the hallucinatory span of the Coronado bridge, the spires and towers of downtown, Banse wonders aloud what the story is behind the three houses. Then he laughs, shakes his head, says he’d rather not know people’s business, it’s better that way.
Banse idles before a suburban rambler, single-family dwelling at the end of a cul-de-sac in Paradise Hills. “This is a 30-day notice to get out,” Banse reads, “because of an accumulation of oil, broken glass, debris, filth, trash in and around the property, damage to interior, including broken sink, doors, broken windows, damage to plumbing, mildew. Also, they have been vulgar and abusive to the owner. So, basically, they’re scum.”
From the sidewalk, the house looks as ordinary as its neighbors’ flat-roofed ramblers. No lights on. No cars in the drive. Banse picks up his masking tape, grins, tears off a piece “In case they’re not home, I’ll hang this notice up on their door” Banse grins again. “It’s good masking tape. I’ve seen it hanging up on a door a month later.”
A cardboard sign dangles off the door. Handwritten: NO FUCKEN CANDY. Banse snorts. “That was up there for Halloween! Can you imagine that?”
Banse tapes the eviction notice to the door. “The fun with this will be coming back here in 30 days and getting to throw them out. This is one I don’t feel bad about.”
Bright and brash as a sit-com heroine, Pat Tirey is one of two lawyers who handle Kimball, Tirey and St. John’s trial work. Since 1983, when Tirey joined the firm, she’s represented the plaintiff in more than 4000 eviction trials. “It’s second nature now,” says Tirey. “I can pick up the file and see almost at once if there’s an issue that could be a problem for the landlord.” Tirey’s long fingers rat-a-tat file folders set next her on the table in the cafe on the Radovich Building’s first floor. In a few minutes she must meet two clients across the street at court. She wears a slim-skirted, gray, Glen-plaid suit, bright pink blouse, gray leather three-inch heels.
About half the civil cases in the county’s municipal courts are unlawful detainers — tenant evictions. Tirey explains, “These are some of the fastest cases in court. Were you taking any other lawsuit, you would expect, after filing, to get a judgment six to ten months later, sometimes longer. In unlawful detainers, you generally get a judgment in three to five weeks.
“People who own only one piece of property may depend on rent to pay their mortgage. The tenant may have used every delay tactic he can use, and the landlord is angry, wants to kick the tenant out. I warn landlords, ‘You toss them out physically, you can be liable for a $100-a-day fine. You own property; the person you are renting to doesn’t. If you get a judgment against them, you may never get anything; but if they get a judgment against you, they could own your house.’ ”
Change for a simple uncontested eviction is $95 plus $100 to $150 for costs; for a case that goes to court, the charge is $175 plus costs. If tenants don’t show up at court (and they frequently don’t), the decision goes to the landlord by default. “Then, we’re out of there in two minutes,” Tirey snaps her fingers, smiles, “as fast as I can talk.
“I tell clients, ‘Here are the risks if we go to trial: Assuming we get this judge, this could happen, or we get that judge, that could happen.’ That is part of what you pay an attorney for, to know judges. In my experience, if judges were prosecutors, they’re more pro-landlord; and if they were defense attorneys, they are more often protenant. And now, of course, most muni judges were prosecutors.”
Although local firms recently have seen an increase in numbers of tenants who contest evictions and go to trial — with four or five out of ten now contesting and fighting eviction — even the contested cases usually go quickly. “My clients come to court, go before the judge, and then we walk out the door; and they say, ‘This isn’t L.A. Law!’ It’s not. These trials are swift.”
Tirey pauses. “Well, usually they’re swift. Several years ago, one lawyer here in town was asking for jury trials on unlawful detainers. Several firms in town, including ours, got hit with these. My theory was that it forced landlords to settle. Wendy St. John, who represented one of our clients in such a trial, believes the tenant’s attorney wanted jury trial experience We won the case, but it took four days of court time.
“The typical eviction is nonpayment of rent: people who can’t pay and people who won’t By the time an eviction gets to trial, the tenant hasn’t paid rent for two or three months. If a tenant doesn’t have a lease, then, in California, either tenant or landlord can give a 30-day notice terminating the rental. The landlord can give notice for any reason or no reason.
“For a while we kept getting evictions on houses in which people had set up meth labs. We got so many we put a three-day nuisance form on the computer that read, ‘You are running a meth lab in your house.’” Tirey laughs. “Landlords will say about tenants, ‘I think they’re dealing drugs.’ My guess is, if they’re dealing drugs, they’d have money to pay rent. That sounds sarcastic, but it does sometimes seem the case.
“One reason a landlord cannot have for terminating a rental is one in which he evicts the tenant as retaliation for the tenant’s exercising a right. Typical defense: You said to your landlord, ‘Fix my plumbing.’ He said, ‘No, get out.’ Well, he can’t do that. But it’s hard to prove that’s why you’re being evicted. I don’t know if I’ve had one like that yet that I’ve lost on.
“A major defense for nonpayment is habitability — saying the landlord’s refusal to fix something renders the place uninhabitable. We’ve had the gamut. Bats in Carlsbad. Roof rats in La Mesa. One person claimed his place was bugged — electronic bugs. However, he didn’t allege the landlord did the bugging.
“Habitability is a difficult defense, because it’s really personal with a judge. What makes a place uninhabitable? That’s very subjective. I had a case, a house in La Jolla renting for $3000. The defense came in, said, ‘The place is uninhabitable.’ I said, ‘That is the funniest thing I ever heard. How can a $3000 house be uninhabitable?’ I called the attorney, asked, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘My client claims it took three minutes to warm coffee in the microwave when it should take one minute.’ I laughed, said, ‘Do you really want to go into court and with a straight face and tell a judge a house is uninhabitable because it takes three minutes instead of one to heat coffee?’ He said, ‘That is uninhabitable for a $3000 rental.’ I wanted to take that. It settled out of court. The fun ones never get to court. They, always seem to settle.
“We see cases in which the landlord consistently calls the tenant to arrange to fix something the tenant wants fixed, and the tenant will say, ‘No, that’s not convenient.’ You get into court and you’re fighting, and the landlord says, ‘I went out five different days.’ This claim by the tenant that the landlord would not fix, say, the water heater, may not sound so plausible if the tenant wouldn’t let the landlord in to fix it.
If you are going to call a landlord and say, ‘This place is so horrible as to render it uninhabitable,’ you would open the door right away to get it fixed. I’ve used this argument, successfully.
“Habitability won’t help if you don’t have money for rent. Tenants will tell me, ‘There are terrible plumbing problems.’ I say, ‘Okay, if the problem is as you describe to me, then how much do you think the property’s worth?’ A common misconception tenants have is that they believe if they tell the judge the place is uninhabitable — and let’s say it is, and the judge agrees it is — that they don’t have to pay rent. Which isn’t how it works. So I will say to a tenant, ‘Do you have money to pay?’ And often they answer no.
“How it works is this. The judge looks at the facts and says, ‘The property isn’t worth $350 a month, but it is worth $250. Or it’s worth $2 a month.’ Once or twice I’ve seen a judge find a place uninhabitable down to zero. But say there’s two months’ rent owed, then the tenant has five days to pay that rent at the decreased amount.
If they can’t pay, the judgment flip-flops back to the landlord.”
Tirey occasionally will inspect a rental when the defendant files a habitability defense. So will some judges. “In court the judge may say, ‘Let’s go look.’ It’s great. Court stops and we all go look. Up in North County, a tenant complained of water leakage and said the carpet smelled awful. We argued. The judge said, ‘Let’s drive up to Escondido and check.’ The judge got down on his hands and knees and sniffed the carpet. Back on the bench, he said, ‘Look, I had my nose on that carpet.
I couldn’t smell a thing.’
“Renters who live in an apartment many years and then are evicted, those are really hard. Judges will say, ‘Look, they’ve lived there five years. What do you want’’ The problem is that in court you don’t hear the whole story. They may have been late on the rent every month for five years, there may have been a noise problem, and when we get into court the only issue is did you pay your rent or didn’t you and do you have a defense for that?
“It is often frustrating for our clients, because many want to get up there and tell the judge, ‘Look, this person did this and they did that.’ My client wants to get up and defend himself, and I have to say, ‘Don’t. The judge doesn’t care. All he wants to know is did you give them the notice, did they pay the rent’’ ”
“Often, too, defendants don’t have money to hire an attorney. For my client, that can be good or bad. Most judges in this county — and it took me a while to learn this — will say when a defendant is appearing for himself, ‘Let’s dispense with rules of evidence. This person is going to tell his story. Have his day in court!’ As an attorney, I must not have it appear I’m picking on that defendant. A judge once told me, ‘Look, I know you know what rules of evidence are I’m disregarding anything that’s irrelevant, that’s hearsay, but you shut up and let the defendant talk.’ I’ve learned. And I do, I usually shut up and let them talk.
“We never have equity on our side We always go in looking like the big bad landlord. Somebody can’t pay the rent, there’s a story behind it; that story usually gets told to the judge We rarely tell our side Judges don’t want to hear it. I’m supposed to talk about the law and let my clients talk about the law. Landlords often feel they’ve done everything to help out tenants, and then comes the eviction. We go to court, and this same tenant fights the landlord tooth and nail. The landlord will tum to me and say, ‘I did everything I could, and now they’re kicking me in the teeth.’ These evictions can be almost like divorces. If judges allowed everyone to talk as long as they wanted, they could go on for days. Nothing would get done.
“If you don’t control your clients, they will blurt out something they should not say. Then they will be mad at you. I warn them, ‘Don’t talk unless I ask you a question.’ ”
If Tirey's client wins, the court issues a writ of possession and eventually a judgment ‘We get possession first and worry about money later. The marshal will take that writ out and post it on the property, telling tenants they have five days to get out. If they aren’t gone by then, marshals remove them.
“Marshals only move people. Putting property out on the sidewalk hasn’t happened in California for years. Very rarely does anyone stay to be removed, although his possessions may be there on the day of the lockout. Tenants I’ve seen stay tend to be almost laughing at reality. They don’t believe it’s going to happen.”
When tenants leave possessions, the landlord must store them for 15 days. If a tenant doesn’t pick up his belongings after that time and their aggregate value is more than $300, the landlord has to have published in a newspaper a notice of sale at public auction. After the sale, the landlord can take only what money it costs to store, publish, and sell the tenant’s property. The rest is returned to the tenant. “Needless to say, landlords hate it when tenants leave possessions.”
Crossing Union on her way to the courthouse, Tirey says that the cases she’s trying this afternoon likely won’t be dramatic. “Almost every case, before the action starts, I go out in the hall with the tenant, and my spiel is, ‘The judge wants us to talk. Let’s see if we can come to a resolution.’ Many cases resolve in the hall five minutes before we go into court. When that happens, we enter into an agreement and put it into the court records.”
Tirey first must go up the escalator to the second floor, to M-17, this afternoon presided over by Judge Tim Tbwer, and be assigned a courtroom. Tirey and the other attorneys in eviction actions are sent today to M-10 and given a “bag judge,” a floater who’s moved as he or she is needed from courtroom to courtroom. First of Tirey’s two cases is eviction of two men from an apartment complex for nonpayment of rent.
She meets her client, the complex manager, on the courthouse’s second floor. The manager, in her 60s, wears a navy-blue dress on which a jeweled rose sparkles. Perspiration dews her upper lip. Tirey pats the woman’s arm, assures her she’ll be fine. “There they are, over there,” the manager whispers, indicating two neatly dressed young men, one Hispanic and one Anglo, walking toward her. Tirey escorts the manager into the courtroom, empty of all but two lawyers and their clients.
Out in the hall again, Tirey approaches the two men, asks if they want to try to settle the case before it goes to the judge. They would. The Anglo speaks for both. His roommate isn’t employed, and he had been self-employed; his work died down, and he couldn’t pay the $635 rent. He apologizes for not having gotten in touch sooner. “It has been hectic,” he says nervously, “trying to find a new place.”
The conversation between Tirey and the defendants is interrupted when, down the hall, a vastly overweight woman, screaming and sobbing, runs from an adjacent courtroom. She is shaking her fist toward the open courtroom door. Screams, yowls, “You really did her a lot of good, you fucker! You really did her a lot of good.” People sitting on seats lining the hallway look up, stare, as two marshals try to quiet the woman.
A deputy DA strides past. “Your case?” Tirey asks.
The DA nods, says, “Another satisfied customer.”
While marshals lead the woman down the hall onto the escalator, Tirey guides the men through papers showing they owe $1356, plus attorney’s fees and court costs. The men arrange to pay $250 per month on their debt.
Tirey talks with one of the two tenants in her second case The two — a 16-year-old girl and her 6-month-old daughter and a male — had shared an apartment in a complex off University. They had lived there for eight months. The rent was $470 per month. The girl was to pay half and the male was to pay half. He had defaulted— not shown up for the hearing. Neither had paid rent for two months and had given only partial payment on a third month.
Around her face, soft with baby fat, the girl’s hair has been plaited into myriad braids. Each braid’s end has been dipped in bleach and a bead set at each braid’s tip. Long, brightly polished synthetic nails glitter at the end of her fingers. Her dark skin is carefully tinged with eye shadow, blusher, and her mouth outlined in a color matching the nails. “If I can stay at least until after Christmas, I’d like that,” the girl says to Tirey. Then adds, “I don’t want to mess up my holiday season.”
She explains how she came to be in arrears. “My mailbox was broken, so I didn’t get my check until the end of the month. The landlady, she kept coming up and knocking at my door asking me, ‘Where is the rent?’ and I said, ‘I didn’t get my check yet, and I will have my worker call.’ My worker did call her, and then she wouldn’t answer the phone; and toward the end of the month when I did get my check was when I receive this summons about how I was going to be ordered to move out, so I decided, why pay it?” Tirey’s brow furrows. “I don’t think my clients can go to the end of the year. They have payments they have to make. You haven’t paid your rent in three months, and you have all that money saved up. If you have all the money now that you owe, about $1100, perhaps we could work something out. Do you have that?”
The girls frowns. “Just give me at least 30 more days.”
Tirey stands, straightens her skirt. “Let me talk to my clients real quick.” She heads into the courtroom, where the apartment complex’s property managers wait. In less than a minute, Tirey returns. “They told me 30 days is too long. Can you get out in 10 days?” The girl shrugs. Tirey continues. “Have you thought of finding somewhere else to move?”
“I can get the money from my worker to move. She will give me more money.”
“Maybe,” says Tirey, “we should let the judge decide the case.”
Tirey goes back into the courtroom, where attorney John Ross of Smith and Associates is representing a landlord who wishes to evict a middle-aged woman, who is wearing a pink wool suit and neck brace Appearing on her own behalf, the woman complains that her bathroom needed fixing and the landlord would not fix it, and therefore she withheld half her rent. The landlord claims she would not give him access to the house so that he could fix the bathroom. “I was in a car accident,” she says. “I was extremely nervous. I’ve been in a lot of pain.” The landlord scowls. “He had agreed to so many things and not kept the agreement, and it got to where I did not trust his word anymore. Also, he came at nine at night, and I took off one day when he did not show up at all, period.”
“She'd call,” the landlord growls, “expressing concern about the house, which I don’t mind fixing; but when I have time to fix it, if you don’t want to be there, what can I do? I don’t mind fixing things, but I have to get on the premises to do that.” John Ross turns to his client, frowns, puts out his hand in a palms-down “that’s enough” gesture.
The tenant responds, “Your Honor, the commode was seated so high, I couldn’t use it comfortably. Nothing in the house was done properly; everything was botched.”
Ross, on his feet, addresses the judge. “On six occasions, phone calls were made and appointments set; and when the day came, the tenant was not home or would not let him in. If you can’t get in to fix it, Your Honor, it can’t be fixed. That’s what the basic disagreement here is about.”
“Keep in mind,” the judge says to the tenant, “that when you send a letter to a landlord exercising your right to withhold rent, time is of the essence. He should have access to the premises.”
The tenant seethes. “His handyman came over one morning, and I was in my nightclothes, and he barged in and told me he wanted to take a look at the bathroom floor, and he wanted to know what color I wanted for the tile. After that, no, I did not want him in the house.”
The judge turns to the landlord. “Did you give either verbal or written notice 24 hours before you wanted to repair? Did you give advance warning or notice?”
“I gave her six different requests for access 24 hours ahead of time, all of which she denied; and I was expressly told she would not let me on that property without her being there, and it was not open for discussion because she had three cats there. And I couldn’t get on the property.”
“All right,” the judge answers, “I’m going to find that the defendant had to have access, not on the weekend, but any time.”
As the woman in pink stalks away angrily, her face pleated with rage, the 16-year-old girl is sworn in. Fury has superseded the mild manner with which she earlier pleaded her case to Tirey. Standing before the judge, the girl rapidly repeats her story of why she did not pay rent. But now she excoriates the landlady — “She doesn’t like me personally. That’s what the problem is. She doesn’t want me around there. She doesn’t like my boyfriend.” The girl is so vociferously furious that her spittle flies through courtroom air. The judge, chin resting on palm, listens with apparent patience while the girl complains that the apartment is substandard, the plumbing bad, that all the tenants have protested, and nothing’s been done. Then abruptly, the girl's fury subsides. She sits down, and when the judge, speaking quietly, decides in favor of the landlord, Tirey’s client, the girl only shrugs.
Out in the hallway afterward, Tirey and John Ross chat. “I was surprised,”
Ross says. “My guy was expecting the judge would reduce the rent because there are problems in the house, and he knew it. But how can he make his repairs if he can’t get into the place? Lucky her and not some other judge.” Tirey: “Yeah, I can name three judges we would have lost and four judges we would have won.”
Back out on Union Street, headed for her office, Tirey says that no, an angry tenant has never taken a swing at her. “Someone up in North County put a voodoo hex on me. But as mad as some people get, they will not be abusive with a woman; they back off. Some come drunk to court and are freer with the words and louder than normal, and I’ve had people get sufficiently belligerent that bailiffs have come up and asked, ‘Is everything okay?’ And I’ve asked bailiffs to escort my clients to their cars because tenants have seemed particularly angry.”
Did she ever feel bad about what she did for a living? “There are some very, very sad cases. There are some cases that are tragedies. Somebody got left. Somebody moved out and took the rent money, there’s kids. Those are sad. Sure, some of the cases really bother me They hurt. But I have to handle that myself.”