SM COURTHOUSE — Commissioner Jay Ford will join the Santa Monica Superior Court on Mondays to help clear a backlog of eviction cases from within the West district, which legal services say increased during the winter months.
According to court staff, Ford, who normally works out of the Malibu Courthouse, will be assigned to Santa Monica one day a week to keep two courts open all day Monday for the cases.
A court will be open for half of Wednesday to hear unlawful detainer cases — the other word for evictions — as well, wrote supervising Judge Joseph Biderman in an e-mail.
The court has seen an increase in eviction case filings in recent months, even as the California court system has been on the receiving end of deep cuts at the state level.
Centers like the Santa Monica Self Help Legal Access Center, located at the courthouse, saw a continuous flow of clients through December and January.
Those months are usually pretty light, said Cesar Bertaud, a staff attorney at the legal access center.
“December is a month we lose most of our volunteers,” Bertaud said. “We count on a dip in (unlawful detainers) or else we’d be going crazy.”
The staff had so much eviction traffic — for both tenants and landlords — that they had to cut off family law services on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because they couldn’t keep up with demand.
The access center sees people from all over the West District, which includes much of the Westside and an area near the Los Angeles International Airport.
“Almost all cases exclusive of West Hollywood are in the Santa Monica Courthouse,” Bertaud said.
The center also gets references from the metro area because of its reputation for dealing with eviction cases.
Why the increase is happening is purely anecdotal. Tenants’ rights groups and landlords’ rights organizations both point to the down economy and what they think is an increase of “failure to pay” cases, and illegal subletters.
An illegal subletter could include anything from the main tenant of a rent-controlled apartment renting at above the maximum allowable rate to a subletter or an elderly person taking their adult child in as a “health care provider.”
As far as inconveniences go, said Wes Wellman, former president of the Action Apartment Association, waiting for a case to go before a judge or commissioner is the least of them.
“It’s a reality that we’ve come to accept,” Wellman said. “They take what they take, so people are more focused on problems with the eviction process itself.”
Although the addition of Commissioner Ford is meant to help clear the backlog and waiting time on cases, that’s not always what clients want, said Denise McGranahan, senior attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation Los Angeles’ Santa Monica office.
“For the tenants that face eviction, more time is a good thing,” McGranahan said. “You have more time to live in your apartment.”
That works up to 60 days into the proceedings, at which point the case can be unsealed, whether or not the tenant wins. Information in that filing can hurt the tenant’s credit record, McGranahan said.