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A Window of Opportunity for Tenants in Turmoil : Law: Nonprofit Unlawful Detainer Assistance Project helps renters facing eviction. Landlords also can get aid.

March 12, 1995|MARILYN MARTINEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 51-year-old woman struggled to figure out whether she faced imminent eviction from her apartment.

Yes, she was 10 days late in paying the rent on her Mid-Wilshire apartment, she told paralegal Irma Soto. But, the woman explained, she had sent a check to her landlord by the time she received a notice that she had three days to pay the rent or move out.

Soto's solution: Prepare a legal form asking the Municipal Court to deny the landlord's complaint.

The woman was one of the first beneficiaries of the recently created nonprofit Unlawful Detainer Assistance Project, which targets tenants facing eviction who can't afford a lawyer, but don't qualify for free legal aid.

"I was very concerned," the relieved woman said as she headed into the courthouse corridor after paying Soto $45.

Created and sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., the two-month-old project was designed to give tenants facing eviction reliable, effective and low-cost legal aid. The service is also available to landlords who are representing themselves in court.

Legal filings to evict tenants, known as unlawful detainer filings, are one of the most common legal actions, with an estimated 37,000 filings per year at the Downtown municipal courthouse.

Often, tenants facing eviction turn to scam artists who present themselves as paralegals and promise, for a price, to stop the eviction, said bar association President John Carson, who came up with the idea for the project.

But many times those services only provide tenants with useless legal forms that postpone their eviction, but don't solve the problem. Meanwhile, tenants may lose their legal right to fight the eviction.

Usually, the services, which often use fliers to advertise and have been known to recruit clients outside of courtrooms, charge clients from $150 to $400 for each transaction. But when the option of legal filings run out, representatives of the services often disappear.

Many of the victims of these "paper mills" are minorities and immigrants who don't speak English, said Tomas Olmos, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which serves the indigent.

"You've got tenants who are very vulnerable, and they become very susceptible to these scam artists," Olmos said. "They tell them they can get six months free rent."

Olmos said the Legal Aid Foundation's Eviction Defense Center serves about 10,000 clients per year. Center staff members helped train the three-member staff of the project, which serves those who do not qualify for Legal Aid's services.

Carson said the project could help relieve courts congested with unnecessary filings and allow eviction cases to go through the system faster.

Municipal Court Judge Robert Hess said he often sees eviction cases in which the tenant's legal filings have been prepared by scam artists.

"I see them when they come back and say, 'I had people say they took care of this,' " said Hess.

So far, the project is off to a good start, staff members said. Walk-ins are steady and the office receives 25 to 50 calls a day. Since tenants often find notices on their doors when they come home from work--when the project offices are closed--the office receives many phone calls in the morning.

"Some people are panicked," Soto said. "They want someone to tell them something. Are the marshals coming? They've been panicked all night long."

Often, people come to the offices seeking help after a court judgment has been issued against them, clearing the way for their eviction by marshals. In those cases, there is little left to do, but project staff members may be able to help.

"No one really believes that it will happen to them," Soto said.

*

Other times, tenants who don't speak English are confused and frightened by English-only legal notices. In one case, an elderly Spanish-speaking couple came to the office fearing they would be forced onto the streets.

As it turned out, the landlord sent them a notice ordering them to get rid of their chickens and collection of used tires. When Soto explained this to the couple, they eagerly agreed to comply.

Project workers also will offer referrals to an attorney, referrals to the county bar association's Dispute Resolution Service, and assistance in the preparation and filing of pleadings in cases where tenants or landlords represent themselves.

The office is located at the Los Angeles Municipal Courthouse, 110 N. Grand St., Room 526. Walk-in consultations are accepted from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Information: (213) 896-6475.

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