New Tools Are Helping More Tenants Than Ever Fight Eviction and Rent Debt

Undergirding California’s mass homelessness is an ongoing eviction crisis, with tenants often flung into the legal system to fight evictions without help. New tools are making is possible for tenants to stay in place — and coordinate efforts to fight back.

A march to stop evictions in Pasadena, California, on January 2, 2023. (David McNew / Getty Images)

On November 14, 2023, Liz Ruvalcaba was served with a summons and complaint notifying her that a lawsuit had been filed by her landlord to evict her from her home. It didn’t come as a shock. One week earlier, Ruvalcaba had returned home to find her rent checks for September and October rolled up and wedged under her doorknob, still in the envelopes in which she had delivered them to her property manager. “You could see [the manager] had opened the envelopes and then just put the checks back inside,” Ruvalcaba told Jacobin. “Of course, I knew that if they’re refusing to accept the rent, they’re getting ready to do something. And sure enough, a week went by and I received the documents from the court.” The summons and complaint specified that she was being evicted for nonpayment of rent.

In August, Ruvalcaba, who lives with her two adult children, was changing jobs. The hiring process for her new job took over a month, causing her to fall behind on rent. When she ultimately did pay rent, however, the property manager didn’t indicate that there was any issue. “She never contacted me, she never called me, she never sent me a text. No letter, no notice, no red flags.” But Ruvalcaba, who has lived in her eighteen-unit rent-stabilized building in the West Los Angeles area for twenty-nine years, knew the landlord wanted long-term tenants like her to move out.

Ruvalcaba has personally received multiple “cash-for-keys” offers, and says that over the years the landlord has tried to evict several of her neighbors with older leases. California’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act allows landlords to reset rents to market rate when a tenant vacates a rent-stabilized unit, effectively incentivizing the displacement of long-term tenants like Ruvalcaba. The landlord has also withheld maintenance and refused to pay for things like plumbing repairs and mold remediation — common practices pursued by landlords seeking to force tenants to “self-evict.” And when Ruvalcaba inquired about getting an additional parking space, she says, the property manager declined the request because she “didn’t pay as much rent as the new tenants.”

When Ruvalcaba received the summons and complaint on November 14, the clock started ticking. In California, tenants have only five business days to respond to a summons and complaint by filing what is officially called an “answer” — a complex, time-consuming document with detailed specifications for legal sufficiency, requiring internet access and payment of a $240 filing fee unless the tenant qualifies for a fee waiver. If tenants fail to file their answer within the stipulated time, landlords can file a “Declaration for Default Judgment by Court” against the tenant and ask the sheriff to enforce the judgment — evict the tenant — without so much as a hearing. The process, which can take as little as several weeks, happens with extraordinary frequency in California.

A 2018 report published by the group Tenants Together showed that 40 percent of evictions carried out in California between 2014 and 2016 were the result of tenants not filing an answer to the summons and complaint within the five-day period. With landlords across the state filing approximately 166,000 eviction lawsuits annually in that period, that is a staggering number of tenants being evicted without a chance to defend themselves in court — even in cases where the evictions are clearly illegal. (Notably, the data for this period does not reflect the recent postpandemic surge in eviction filings, nor does it include illegal evictions carried out by landlords outside of the courts by force or coercion, which spiked during the pandemic.)

Ruvalcaba knew she needed to act fast. She went straight to the courthouse, where the clerk instructed her to use something called the Tenant Power Toolkit to file a response. The Tenant Power Toolkit — developed in a collaboration between the Debt Collective, the Los Angeles Tenant Union (LATU), the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), and local housing justice lawyers — is a legal mutual-aid tool designed specifically for tenants in California who have received a summons and complaint for unlawful detainer. The tool kit, which can be used by all tenants, both documented and undocumented, asks the user a series of questions about their housing, eviction, and landlord in English or Spanish, after which it identifies relevant defenses, creates an answer, and in some cases files it electronically. It also connects users with tenant rights organizations and free legal aid in their area. Ruvalcaba used the tool kit the same day and is currently awaiting her court date.

Since it launched in July 2022, the tool kit has prepared over six thousand answers for households comprising over 13,500 tenants, more than a third of whom are children. In addition to keeping tenants housed longer, buying them time to seek legal assistance, and giving them a chance to defend themselves in court, this intervention is significant because of the long-term consequences associated with default judgment evictions.

“Getting a default judgment is especially bad for tenants because it means that they have evictions on their record, which can make it very hard for them to rent their next apartment. It can also leave tenants with rent debt that the landlord or a debt collection agency might try to recover,” says Rose Lenehan, an organizer with LATU and the Debt Collective. If tenants do file an answer, however, they have the opportunity to go to trial and present often very strong defenses or attempt to reach a settlement agreement with the landlord, which, even in instances that result in displacement, could involve negotiating on rent debt, getting their records sealed, and giving tenants more time to vacate — none of which is possible in the case of a default judgment.

Although it provides a crucial first line of defense and gives tenants a chance to secure a better outcome, the tool kit isn’t a panacea. The eviction process remains stacked against tenants, and the dire shortage of legal resources makes it structurally impossible for most tenants to secure legal assistance — a circumstance that has only worsened since the expiration of pandemic-era eviction moratoria and associated tenant protections, causing a massive surge in evictions. In Los Angeles, for instance, 66,000 evictions were filed between February and October 2023, yet there are only around fifty eviction defense attorneys assisting low-income tenants in the entire county. With such limited resources available, the vast majority of tenants are forced to navigate the complicated and demanding eviction process alone — including representing themselves in eviction court — while the overwhelming majority of landlords have attorneys. Access to legal representation has been shown to significantly lower eviction rates for tenants; in Los Angeles, however, just 3 percent of tenants have legal representation in eviction proceedings compared to 88 percent of landlords.

Ruvalcaba is currently confronting that reality. “I’m very nervous. And I’m clueless; I’m not a lawyer. I’ve tried to get legal help but that can be very time consuming. So do I continue to miss work to go to these places when the odds are low they’ll be able to help me?” Instead, Ruvalcaba is turning to LATU. She learned about the tenant union at a tenants’ rights workshop organized through the tool kit. She met Lenehan there, who suggested she attend a meeting with her local LATU chapter. “I’m hoping that maybe by going to tenant union meetings I can get a little bit of guidance or maybe meet someone who has already been through this,” said Ruvalcaba.

Several existing tenant associations who organize with LATU have used the tool kit in their fights against predatory landlords. Tenants from the 1512 Mohawk Street Tenant Association in Echo Park, for instance, who have been fighting “renoviction” since their building was sold in 2022, arranged a party in the building and jointly used the tool kit for their respective cases earlier this fall. Subsequently, the tenants carried out an action where they delivered a “one-day notice to stop harassment or quit” to the property manager. The tenants were able to secure legal assistance, and on November 29, 2023, all unlawful detainer cases in the building were dismissed, demonstrating how legal mutual aid can assist existing campaigns. But interventions like the tool kit can also help expand organizing efforts and transform evictions and rent debt into leverage against landlords.

Collectivizing Evictions and Rent Debt

When tenants use the tool kit, if they consent, they are connected to tenant rights organizations in their area. By connecting tenants facing eviction — an otherwise individualized and isolating experience that is nevertheless endemic to the current housing system — they can collectivize and reframe that experience and fight their evictions together. And increasingly, tenants are in fact fighting evictions filed by the same landlords.

The eviction data collected from tool kit users has shown that corporate entities are behind 70 percent of filings, with AvalonBay, Essex Property Trust, Invitation Homes, and Equity Residential among the biggest evictors in the dataset. The data has also helped identify several dozen tenants who are facing eviction by the same landlord entities. This reflects the increasing consolidation of residential real estate into corporate hands, the growing concentration of holdings among relatively few private equity–backed corporate landlords, and the propensity of larger landlords to file evictions at higher rates than smaller landlords.

As corporate landlords expand their portfolios, however, they simultaneously expand the tenant body that can build and leverage collective power against them. And because rent debt is by far the biggest driver of evictions — currently accounting for 83 percent of filings among tool kit users, documenting the devastating convergence of the eviction crisis and rent debt crisis — tenants across buildings held by the same landlord can potentially use their collective debt as leverage to force concessions; these might include rescinding evictions, canceling rent debt, imposing rent control, remediating habitability issues, negotiating collective contracts, and more.

There are several examples across the United States of this type of multibuilding organizing being carried out against corporate landlords. One such group, the Veritas Tenants Association (VTA) in San Francisco — which has organized dozens of buildings owned by the city’s largest landlord and the Bay Area’s worst evictor, Veritas Investments, Inc. — proved the viability of leveraging collective debt during the pandemic, when tenants from fifty households across several buildings carried out a successful rent debt strike that resulted in rent debt cancellation for all VTA members. (Currently, tenants from multiple Veritas-owned buildings are on rent strike, demanding a say in the terms of sale of their homes after Veritas defaulted on a nearly $1 billion loan).

Even a small number of tenants relative to a corporate landlord’s total portfolio size can potentially wield significant leverage in the form of collective rent debt, provided they organize. For example, just eighty-seven users of the Tenant Power Toolkit owe more than $2 million in combined rent debt to a corporate landlord that owns roughly 80,000 units nationwide.

Withholding revenue has always been a powerful tool of tenant movements, but the corporate landlord structure amplifies its potential. Because corporate landlords usually take on significant debt to expand their portfolios, typically securitizing rental streams to facilitate that expansion, and rely on rental income to pay investors and creditors, tenants can fundamentally jeopardize their business model by withholding revenue in the form of rent or rent debt, shifting the site of struggle to the global capital market in which rental housing is increasingly enmeshed and potentially forcing corporate landlords to default on loans. This could be accompanied by demands for decommodification.

The potential of organizing around rent debt is significant, especially because the inadequate pandemic protections and the flawed Emergency Rental Assistance Program — which was billed as an intervention into the mounting debt crisis but served as a cleverly camouflaged bailout of landlords and the real estate industry — left millions of tenants with substantial rent debt. In California, roughly six hundred thousand households have rent debt, owing more than $1.8 billion combined. Meanwhile, at the national level, 5,160,000 households hold an estimated total rent debt that exceeds $10 billion. In order to identify and link these tenants and their landlords, and facilitate the expansion of campaigns against corporate landlords beyond the local level, the partners behind the tool kit are releasing a Rent Debt Tool this December to be used by tenants nationwide.

“What we’re hoping to do with the Rent Debt Tool is to begin making a strategic map and targeting some of those bigger landlords for rent debt abolition nationally, because landlords are increasingly national and even transnational in scope,” says Hannah Appel, cofounder of the Debt Collective and associate professor of anthropology at UCLA. “Rent debt is a new leverage point in the broader fight to decommodify housing, and in the Debt Collective, we have a complementary strength to the organizing that is happening locally, which is organizing nationally.”

To use the Rent Debt Tool, tenants will fill out a questionnaire that covers their debt, their living situation, and their landlord. These answers will help document patterns, identify corporate entities to target, link evicted tenants and current tenants who owe rent debt to the same landlord, and eventually support organizing efforts across both groups so they can fight for debt cancellation together.

By expanding campaigns against corporate landlords from the local level to the regional and national level — and ideally, eventually, the transnational level — and shifting organizing to a scale that more closely approximates that of corporate consolidation, tenants can exploit vulnerabilities inherent to the corporate landlord model through large-scale multibuilding strikes that also include indebted and evicted tenants, potentially exercising leverage unprecedented in its scale. Beyond helping tenants who face eviction or rent debt, the Tenant Power Toolkit and the Rent Debt Tool, alongside tenant rights groups like LATU organizing at the local level, create an indispensable infrastructure for that purpose.

This work grows increasingly urgent as eviction filings and rent debt, which had long ago reached a breaking point, far exceed prepandemic levels, while simultaneously the cost of living crisis only exacerbates the situation for tenants. As Ruvalcaba told Jacobin: “You hear people complain about other people being homeless. But how did they get there? I wasn’t refusing to pay rent. I stretched out my money as far as I could. Rent is not the only thing; I have other bills too.”