For a former welfare mom turned legal-aid attorney and a single parent relying on public housing assistance, a victory in the state's highest court is a pretty big deal.
On June 13, the California Supreme Court unanimously sided with Syriah DeGrate, a mother of two who was evicted from her Southeast San Diego apartment on Jan. 31, 2001, and told she had 30 days to find a new place to live. When DeGrate refused to leave, arguing her rental agreement said her lease could be terminated only for good cause, the property owner, Wasatch Management, took her to court. A San Diego Superior Court judge sided with Wasatch.
DeGrate relies on federal Section 8 housing assistance to pay her rent. Her attorney, Bernadette Probus, who works for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, focusing on tenants' rights, said that under a 1999 California law, Section 8 tenants are entitled to 90 days' notice unless a landlord has good cause to ask the tenant to leave-for example, if the tenant refuses to pay rent. DeGrate hadn't been accused of anything that would be grounds for eviction, Probus said.
Probus appealed the county court's ruling and won. Wasatch appealed that ruling and, during the ensuing three years, the case slowly worked its way up to the state Supreme Court.
The law that gives Section 8 tenants the right to 90-days' notice sits within a chapter of the California Civil Code that deals with rent-control laws. Because of that, Wasatch argued that the 90-day notice requirement applied only to cities with rent-control laws, which San Diego lacks. The court, however, sided with DeGrate, arguing that the Legislature need not "neatly" divide the legislative chapter into rent-control and non-rent-control sections. Within the section dealing specifically with the 90-days' notice, there's nothing that says it applies only to rent-control cities, the court ruled.
Sean Schwerdtfeger, an attorney for the San Diego Housing Commission, intervened in the case in support of Wasatch, a move that surprised Probus, who said many Northern California housing authorities intervened on DeGrate's behalf. But Schwerdtfeger said the Housing Commission is concerned that the court ruling will add another layer of red tape to a program that already lacks willing landlord participants. Roughly 12,000 families in San Diego rely on the Section 8 program.
"All of these families depend on the continued participation of 6,443 landlords," Schwerdtfeger wrote in a document filed in the case.
"At the end of the day, the California Supreme Court, as a court, is unconcerned with the effect of a law on the Section 8 program," Schwerdtfeger told CityBeat. "If the law completely obliterated the program, as far as the court is concerned, that's not an issue it's reviewing."
It's a dilemma for both sides: the Housing Commission wants to make it easier on landlords so that Section 8 tenants have much-needed housing. But Probus and other low-income housing advocates argue that law or no law, the lack of Section 8 landlords means an evicted tenant could be out on the street without extra time to find a landlord willing to take a Section 8 voucher. A study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that it takes Section 8 tenants 83 days, on average, to find housing after an eviction.
For Probus, the ruling not only clarifies a law that's been at issue since its inception, but means "complete vindication" for DeGrate. Probus, who worked her way off welfare and put herself through law school, never thought she'd see a state Supreme Court victory. To celebrate, she plans to take DeGrate and her two daughters to the San Diego County Fair."She'd rather do that than be taken out to dinner to drink champagne," Probus laughed.