A UC-Berkeley Professor Couldn't Evict Her Tenant Because of California's Insane Laws

Mother Jones accidentally makes the case against eviction regs.


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Mother Jones writes, "It's not easy to evict someone in California… Generally that's a good thing." But many people who read the article in which this claim appears may reach a different conclusion.

Elizabeth Abel, an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley, rented her two-bedroom home to David Peritz, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Abel didn't bother to ask for references or do much research on her prospective tenant, according to Mother Jones: the fact that he was an academic was essentially good enough for her.

Her trust was misplaced. Peritz failed to pay rent on time, and it didn't take long for him to stop paying entirely:

By the time April 1 came and went without a rent check, Abel had had enough. She wrote Peritz to tell him she was taking him to small-claims court. Around the same time, Abel's neighbors began writing her increasingly concerned emails. One of them had even seen Peritz taking her furniture down the driveway to the office in the garage late at night. They rarely, if ever, saw his wife or son.

Abel got in touch with the Kensington Police Department, which sent an officer by the house to talk with Peritz. The officer emailed Abel to tell her that he thought Peritz was "trying to establish squatters rights or lock you out," and that she should have a cop accompany her when she eventually came back home. Someone from the police department would tell her she should start the eviction process as soon as possible. It might take weeks, even months, to get Peritz out of her house.

That's because of California's insane laws governing landlord-tenant interactions. The law protects tenants engaged in the worst sorts of cons—they can essentially continue to occupy a home, without ever paying rent, for months at a time. The eviction process is so crazy, it even formed the basis of the plot on an episode of HBO's Silicon Valley (the episode, according to Bustle, was pretty dead-on). According to Mother Jones:

This process was set up in part to protect tenants from predatory landlords. But in some instances it has provided cover for people looking to score a few months of free housing. In 2008, SF Weekly reported that there were between 20 and 100 serial evictees operating in San Francisco—bouncing from home to home without ever paying a dime.

The sharing economy has provided new opportunities for grifters to game the system. So-called Airbnb squatters—like the pair of brothers who refused to leave a Palm Springs condo in the summer of 2014 after paying one month's rent—have become more common. It's enough of an issue that Airbnb has a page devoted to the topic; it warns that local laws may allow long-term guests to establish tenants' rights.

Peritz has been accused of doing exactly this. Someone even set up a website to warn people not to rent their homes to him.

Thankfully, Abel finally prevailed over Peritz (for the most part), largely thanks to a public shaming campaign launched by sympathetic academics—including feminist giants Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. "I will write to every colleague in your field explaining the horrible scam you have committed," Brown threatened. Students have tried to get Peritz fired—and for once, such an effort seems entirely merited. Suffice it to say, someone like Peritz should not be teaching a course on "Ethics and Politics of New Technology."

Peritz eventually vacated the premises, and has started making restitution payments to Abel, according to Mother Jones. But what about all the landlords out there who don't have Judith Butler on speed dial? They are at the mercy of a system designed to protect scammers from the consequences of taking advantage of property owners.

Liberals who support California's eviction policies—including many of the folks at Mother Jones, I presume—will say these laws are necessary in order to prevent landlords from mistreating their tenants: to stop them from evicting people without notice, force them to fix the utilities, and prevent sudden rent increases. But this seems like a case where the straightforwardly libertarian approach works just fine: landlords and tenants should be permitted to agree to mutual terms, spell them out in a contract, and sue each other if either party violates it. The problem with California's laws is that they supersede these contracts, tip the scales in favor of tenants, and enable the kinds of horrific abuses detailed in the Mother Jones article.

In any case, Abel told Mother Jones that she's hoping her ordeal could persuade policymakers to reform Caifornia's eviction laws. It's sure nice to see college professors standing up for private property rights.