In early November, Sheila and Sugar Robinson walked into the George D. Carroll Courthouse on 37th Street to seek legal information from housing lawyers with Bay Area Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm. The couple had just received a notice that their landlord had filed for a court eviction over an alleged $400 rent deficit.
The Robinsons are among hundreds in Richmond who faced eviction over the last year; following a settlement with their landlord, they avoided joining hundreds more who were ultimately forced out of their homes.
Richmond has one of the largest rental markets in Contra Costa County—over half of the city’s inhabited housing units are rentals—and until recently, there were no limits on who landlords could evict. As the interactive maps above show, Richmond has had more sheriff-enforced evictions than any other city in Contra Costa County this year. What’s more, the numbers in the maps above are only a small fraction of the county’s total evictions, and some experts say the numbers may even increase after new rental protections go into effect later this month.
According to an eviction schedule that Richmond Confidential obtained from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department’s Civil Unit on October 21, there have been at least 267 instances of sheriff-enforced evictions in Richmond since January of this year.
“That’s about one a day,” said Eli Moore, a program manager at the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, a multidisciplinary research initiative that published a 2015 study on gentrification in Richmond.
The Sheriff’s Department’s figures reveal that Richmond has the highest rate of sheriff-enforced evictions in the county when compared to cities with similarly sized populations and rental markets. Antioch and Concord, both of which have similar populations and slightly smaller rental markets, logged 237 and 114 sheriff-enforced evictions, respectively.
Richmond’s tally of sheriff-enforced evictions may not seem terribly high for a city with a population of over 106,000, but it’s likely just the tip of the iceberg.
“Honestly, the number does seem small to me in comparison to the number of people we see at the clinic,” said Oraneet Shikmah Orevi, a housing lawyer at Bay Area Legal Aid, referring to the weekly information session that the law firm holds at the 37th Street courthouse.
That’s because the sheriff’s department only gets involved in evictions when a landlord has taken a tenant to court, won the suit and paid the sheriff’s department a $145 fee to physically remove the tenant from the premises. So the 267 evictions likely reflect only a small proportion of the city’s total evictions.
If a landlord who originally pursued a court eviction enters into a settlement agreement with his or her tenant and the tenant moves out, for example, then the sheriff’s department won’t get involved. The sheriff’s department might also fail to carry out a scheduled eviction if the property owner cancelled the eviction, or if the tenant filed for bankruptcy. In neither case would the eviction be counted by the county as completed.
Orevi said Richmond’s 267 sheriff-enforced evictions also exclude unofficial evictions.
“A lot of landlords don’t do the process legally,” said Orevi. She said that some property owners push tenants out by doubling rents, illegally changing locks or refusing to do necessary upkeep.
And some landlords avoid the official eviction process by threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if undocumented tenants don’t move out.
The Sheriff’s Office’s eviction schedule was obtained by Richmond Confidential in late October, so the data presented above covers only evictions recorded through Oct. 21. Orevi said that during the period between the city’s approval of new tenant protections with the passage of Measure L in November and the implementation of those protections in late December, the number of evictions may increase.
But Leah Simon-Weisberg, one of Berkeley’s newly elected Rent Board Commissioners and one of the attorneys who helped draft Measure L, said there may not be enough time for landlords to evict tenants before the December effective date. According the ordinance, all evictions still in process on Dec. 30 will be cancelled.
Nationally, people living in areas where families spend more than 30 or 40 percent of their income on housing are at higher risk of eviction, said Moore. In Richmond, this year’s sheriff-enforced evictions were largely concentrated in areas with lower median household income levels, according to the Census Tract data displayed in the above map.
Since the beginning of this year, 127 Section 8 Voucher holders had their leases terminated in Richmond, according to Tim Jones, the executive director of the Richmond Housing Authority. Jones said he was unable to comment on how many resulted in sheriff-enforced evictions. But according to a list of known affordable or subsidized multiple family rental units in Contra Costa County kept by the Department of Conservation and Development, at least 14 of the city’s sheriff-enforced evictions were carried out against residents living in complexes with affordable housing units.
Nine of those evictions occurred at the Nevin Plaza Seniors Apartments, which the county categorizes as affordable housing for seniors and disabled tenants.
“Evictions are going to be in low-income areas,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics, urban and environmental policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “That’s because people don’t know their rights—they’re afraid, they’re going to be bullied.”
It’s also because income “instability”—the loss of income that can accompany job loss, sickness or injury—can affect a person’s ability to pay rent, said Moore.
“And that’s what leads to eviction,” he said.
Tenant’s rights advocates have been pushing for rent control and eviction protections in Richmond since at least 2015, when the City Council first voted—but failed—to institute rent control. Resistance to gentrification and rising rents goes back even further, to the 2008 recession, when the foreclosure crisis hit Richmond and turned many homeowners into renters.
In recent years, Richmond has seen a “ripple effect from the core of the region,” said Moore. That is, when housing prices go up in San Francisco, they also go up in other Bay Area cities, including Richmond.
But this year—one day after the Robinsons visited the housing clinic—Richmond passed a new rent control ordinance. When Measure L goes into effect on Dec. 30, it will place a rent cap on properties built before 1996 and require property owners to prove that they have a “just cause” for evicting tenants, such as failure to pay rent.
Until the end of December, landlords may still attempt to raise tenants’ rents as high as they deem appropriate—and evict residents without explanation.
It remains to be seen exactly how Measure L will impact Richmond’s eviction numbers next year—and beyond.
“I think evictions will go down because landlords are no longer going to be able to just evict tenants for no reason,” said Orevi.
But Dreier said it’s possible that evictions might actually increase under rent control.
“You will find landlords will be very aggressive at breaking the law and telling tenants they’ve been evicted for phony reasons,” he said.
Miriam Zuk, a project director of UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, which researches gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area, said for-cause evictions also tend to go up in cities with just cause ordinances.
She said that landlords may start to look for reasons to evict that they might have ignored before the ordinance, such as noisiness or unauthorized roommates.
Jeffrey Wright, a longtime real estate broker and Richmond landlord, said he doesn’t think property owners will try to create artificial reasons to push tenants out.
“But if real reasons…to terminate a tenancy present themselves, landlords will probably be a lot less tolerant to continue with the situation,” said Wright. “Why continue to be so lenient?”