SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — On Wednesday the California Attorney General issued a stern warning to landlords who attempt to evict tenants through unlawful measures such as changing the locks, shutting off water and electricity, or threatening tenants.

The California Department of Justice said its Housing Strike Force has received reports of landlords trying to evict tenants without legal authority from court. Under California law, the only lawful way to evict a tenant is to file a case in court.

“Nearly 1.5 million renters in California are at-risk of eviction, struggling to put together next month’s rent as the cost of living continues to rise,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said. 

“While landlords may be frustrated, they have a responsibility to go through proper proceedings if eviction is the necessary next step. Let me be clear: That means filing a case in court,” Bonta said.

The only lawful way to evict a tenant is to file lawsuit and wait for the court to order law enforcement to carry out the eviction. The Attorney General warned landlords that so-called “self-help evictions” can result in a landlord being held civilly or criminally liable.

“You cannot change the locks, shut off power, or remove personal property in order to force a tenant out of their home,” Bonta said.

Two kinds of evictions

The Tenant Protection Act prohibits landlords from evicting most tenants without “just cause.” The law sets out two kinds of evictions: at fault evictions and no fault evictions.

At fault evictions include: nonpayment of rent; criminal activity on the premises; refusal to allow entry; nuisance or waste; breach of a material term of the lease. No fault evictions include: the owner wants to move in, the owner wants to do a substantial remodel that requires permits and will take more than 30 days, and the owner intends to demolish the home.

Landlords can only evict a tenant for one of the reasons listed here. Lying about the reason for evicting a tenant is also illegal.

A pedestrian walks by a “for rent” sign posted in front of an apartment building on June 2, 2021 in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Bay Area rental prices still rising

The San Francisco Bay Area’s average rental prices continue to climb in 2022. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom home rose 41 percent between 2021-2022 in Sunnyvale (average rent now $2,840); 22 percent in Redwood City ($2,570) and Fremont ($2,400); 19 percent in San Jose ($2,570); and six percent in San Francisco ($3,000), according to Zumper.

This summer, San Francisco and San Jose had the second-highest and third-highest monthly rent prices for one-bedroom homes in the country, Zumper reported.

State protections from the eviction moratoriums that were in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic expired in April.

There is some good news for renters this summer. Zumper wrote, “National rent prices typically peak during the summer–which, during ‘normal’ years, is the busiest moving season. But Zumper’s National Index is up just 0.5 percent for one-bedrooms and down a whopping 2.9 percent for two-bedroom apartments–a sign that rent hikes are beginning to slow.”

Bonta recognized that many families in the Bay Area and across California are currently facing difficulty affording rent. He said he is committed to advancing housing access, affordability, and equity in California, including protecting and promoting tenants’ rights.

The Attorney General’s Office created the Housing Strike Force and launched a Housing Portal on DOJ’s website with resources and information for California homeowners and tenants.

Law enforcement can’t use force

Bonta gave the following legal guidance to law enforcement agencies on Wednesday for when police officers or sheriff’s deputies are called to handle a dispute between a landlord and tenant:

  • Law enforcement should never help a landlord evict a tenant by force or threats.
  • Only the Sheriff or Marshal, or their deputies, may evict a tenant, and only with a court order.
  • Law enforcement should advise the landlord or other persons involved that it is a misdemeanor to force tenants out of a rental property and should instruct them to allow the tenant back into the home.
  • Law enforcement should advise the landlord to seek legal advice if they have an issue with the tenant or to lawfully evict the tenant.
  • Law enforcement should write a report about the incident even if no arrest is made.

“Today’s guidance underlines law enforcement’s important role in responding to reports of illegal evictions and their responsibility to intervene to enforce the law and stop self-help evictions when they see them.”

The Housing Strike Force encourages Californians to send complaints related to housing to housing@doj.ca.gov. To find a free legal aid attorney in your area, you can go to https://lawhelpca.org

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