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How no-fault evictions are contributing to LA's homeless crisis

Priced Out: LA's Hidden Homeless
Priced out: L.A.'s hidden homeless 25:40

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Finding an apartment to rent is often a stressful process, no matter your circumstances or where you live. The challenge of locating a place to call home at a price you can afford — and dealing with all of the logistics and costs — is enough to make you never want to move again. 

When you finally sign your lease and get settled, you're probably not thinking about the fact that in many American cities, the landlord can kick you out for no reason at all.

It's called a "no-fault" or "no-cause" eviction. In cities like Los Angeles, these usually happen when a tenant is under a month-to-month lease agreement. Tenants can be ousted even when they didn't do anything to violate their lease, like falling behind on payments. 

There are a number of reasons why landlords could employ a no-fault eviction. They may want to evict current tenants to update and re-list their unit at market rate and make a higher profit. Or, if a building is sold, the new owners might also want to renovate or redevelop, again raising rents when construction is done.

That's what happened to Melinda Peffer, a longtime Los Angeles resident. She signed a lease in a non-rent-controlled building in the Silver Lake neighborhood 17 years ago. In 2003, that lease automatically rolled over into a month-to-month agreement, a very common — and precarious — arrangement in LA. It's estimated that a majority of the city's four million renters have similar situations.

Melinda Peffer in her apartment after she was served a no-fault eviction notice. CBS News

The state of California allows landlords with month-to-month tenants in non-rent-controlled buildings to terminate occupancy often with just 60 days notice. So when her building was purchased by an investment firm, Peffer and many other residents were given no-cause notices to vacate. 

"I had no idea at that point in time that something called no-cause eviction was even legal," she said.

But it is legal, and it's happening more often. In Los Angeles, tenants in older, rent-controlled properties must be given a legal reason if they are served with a notice to vacate. But that only applies to buildings built before 1978 within the city limits. Newer buildings in the city, and any building in most of the rest of the county, don't have those same protections. There were more than 50,000 evictions filed the county in 2017, according to the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCLA).

Shocked by this increasingly common practice, Peffer and her husband Michael decided to fight their eviction along with a handful of other tenants in the building. But fighting an eviction notice comes with its own risks. 

If a case is taken to court and the landlord wins, the renters will have an eviction on their permanent record. This can make it difficult to rent another apartment, and in some cases may damage their credit score. It is especially intimidating for tenants to challenge evictions served to them by corporate landlords, which tend to have more money and resources to win their case. 

"Every landlord, if they want, in the state of California, can find out that you were evicted," said Noah Grynberg, a lawyer and tenant's rights activist with LACCLA who helped the Peffers with their case. 

Noah Grynberg leads a community meeting in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.  CBS News

LACCLA provides legal services to people trying to remain in their apartments. The group also helps communities organize and start tenants unions, which is what the Peffers did. Grynberg says this gives renters collective bargaining power with their landlords to either negotiate more time to move or more affordable rent prices. 

Although the Peffers formed a union and fought for 10 months, they ultimately lost their eviction case.

Moving means uprooting their 7-year-old daughter in the middle of the school year and a $900 increase in rent. But the Peffers are more fortunate than some in that their eviction doesn't mean homelessness. That's not the case for most of Grynberg's clients, and many of the people being displaced throughout LA County. It's a problem that disproportionately impacts low-income Hispanic and black communities as longtime residents lose their homes and are priced out of the market.

Melinda helps her daughter pack up belongings in her bedroom. CBS News

The county is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, with many experts estimating the city is in need of more than 550,000 units. So when people are hit with a big rent increase or are forced to vacate their stable housing, there are very few other options they can afford. 

As a result, increasing evictions and rent hikes throughout Los Angeles have contributed to the worst homelessness crisis the area has ever seen. From 2011 to 2017, the number of homeless in the city surged 75 percent, from about 32,000 to over 55,000 people. 

"I represent very, very low-income people who are struggling to pay their rent now, and their rent now is probably the same rent they've been paying for 20 years," Grynberg said. "They can afford it but it's tough. If they get a big rent increase, and they go to court and they lose, and they get evicted, the result is going to be homelessness for a lot of them."

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