Western Center attorney Madeline Howard got the call from an attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza on a Friday. The attorney’s clients had eviction notices from U.S. Marshals informing them that they were to vacate their homes the following week.
The tenants had done nothing wrong, but their landlord faces federal charges, so the government seized his assets — including rental properties. Initially, the Marshals had the tenants sign a lease that listed the Marshals as landlord. That lasted for almost a year, until a buyer came along who wanted the property vacated.
After receiving the request for assistance, attorneys at Western Center worked with Centro Legal over the following two weeks to stop eviction proceedings, which ultimately allowed the clients to remain in their homes. It was a whirlwind two weeks that illustrates Western Center’s skill in providing support to community clinics so people receive the protection they need.
-U.S. Marshals turned landlords-
The situation started back in February 2018, when U.S. Marshals seized landlord Yaniv Gonar’s properties in response to federal charges for running an illegal slot machine ring. For almost a year, the tenants paid rent to the Marshals, and everything continued on as usual until January 2019, when the tenants noticed a piece of paper on their door – it was a forfeiture complaint.
It’s clear that the federal government knew there were tenants in Gonar’s properties, because a FBI interview in the criminal complaint determined that the tenants were innocent and knew nothing of Gonar’s business. Nevertheless, the only action the government took to warn the tenants of their impending eviction was to stick an English-only copy of the complaint to the front door of the multi-family homes — Spanish is the tenants’ primary language. The notices didn’t have the tenants’ names on them, and had very small font — nothing to indicate to the tenants that they needed to do something, or that the notice was for them.
Western Center attorney Madeline Howard says the situation was particularly disturbing, because the federal government was treating the tenants the same way other abusive landlords treat people. “One of the big trends we see is new owners emptying out rent-controlled buildings occupied by long term tenants who are often people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected classes, in order to market to young, wealthy, white people. In this case, it was the federal government doing the displacing.”
-Western Center steps in-
Howard and her colleagues at Western Center dove into mounds of legal research to find out if there was precedent for U.S. Marshals kicking out tenants in this way — especially in a municipality like Oakland with strong tenant protections. “We advised Centro Legal that we should be proactive in signaling our willingness to intervene in the federal forfeiture action, rather than waiting to do something after the tenants were evicted.”
Howard and the attorney from Centro Legal called the U.S. Attorney to tell them that they viewed the actions by the U.S. Marshals to be illegal under California law. “It wasn’t clear whether the Marshals were purposefully not following the law, or if they were just not paying attention to the law,” Howard explained.
At first, the U.S. Attorney said he was unfamiliar with the situation, but in the days following that phone call, and an hour before Centro Legal was to meet with the tenants, the U.S. Attorney emailed to say the eviction notices would be rescinded. Instead of preparing documents for court, the tenants got the news that they would not be evicted.
Western Center’s intervention changed the course of events in this case. The lawyer at Centro Legal was not federally registered, so having attorneys at Western Center as partners who were knowledgeable and prepared to take on federal proceedings made a world of difference in the subsequent interactions with the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshals.
Now there is a new owner of the building, and according to Howard, “The tenants are as secure as tenants can be in the current climate.” If there is a problem with the new landlord in the future, the tenants have attorneys, and their new landlords know that.