Landlords 'taking the law into their own hands' during coronavirus pandemic

As the end of the month approaches, many tenants are again facing the reality they may not be able to pay rent on their homes and apartments. Eviction moratoriums in California remain in place at the state and various county and city levels. But, it doesn’t mean everyone is abiding by those laws.

Renters from across the Bay Area have contacted KTVU to complain about landlords demanding payment, threatening eviction, or using other tactics to put pressure on them because the tenant contracted coronavirus, lost their job, or simply couldn't afford the monthly payment during the pandemic.

Darshellia Butler had been renting a room along Oakland’s Lake Merritt for four months, on a month-to-month basis.  In mid-March, Butler said her doctor diagnosed her with mild symptoms of COVID-19.

“I woke up, I couldn’t talk, my chest is on the fire,” said Butler. “I went to the hospital—you have it.”

Butler was advised to self-quarantine. She notified her landlord, Peggy Montgomery, and asked her not to rent the room next to her, for everyone’s safety.

“She offered money if I would leave the next day,” said Butler, sharing text messages with KTVU that outlined the conversation with her landlord.

Sick and with nowhere to go, Butler continued to quarantine when she says Montgomery’s actions became more erratic—even prompting Butler to call police several times.  Butler recorded a video of Montgomery trying to enter the room through the window.  She says it wasn’t the first time it had happened.

The Oakland City Attorney stepped in, writing a letter ordering Montgomery to “cease the unlawful conduct.”

The letter also states that their office "has receieved alarming reports that you have repeatedly entered the unit with out notice or consent -- including through a window" and that the city was alerted that Montgomery "subsequently changed the locks on your tenant's bedroom door."

Despite the warning, Butler says, things escalated. 

“She came downstairs, banged on the door,” said Butler. “Your quarantine is over; I’m kicking you out of here. Took the door knob off the door, and started banging on the door.”

Butler eventually recovered and moved out of the home. She also hired an attorney.

“This is really outrageous behavior by the landlord in this case,” said Joseph Tobener, a tenants’ rights attorney with Tobener Ravenscroft LLP. “It’s a landlord taking the law into their own hands."

​​​​​​Montgomery declined an interview, but denied the allegations, saying she climbed through the window because she needed to make a repair.

In an email to KTVU on May 4, Montgomery said, "I came in the window to repair a broken window lock in that bathroom. This was done at D's insistence that I could not use the bedroom door for access."

After further questions she added, "I didn't use the door because the tenant did not want me to come in. There was no lock I simply honored her request and agreed to enter the bathroom using the window."

But Butler insists she didn't give her landlord permission to enter her home at all.

“We’re seeing this time and time again, landlords are panicking about this virus,” said Tobener.  “They’re panicking about not being able to collect rent, tenants breaking leases, and panicking about tenants who are sick.”

When another of Tobener's client, Gaurav Thakur, began renting a room in a San Jose home four months ago he thought it showed all signs of working out.

“You guys to me seemed like nice people and they say yeah, same for us,” said Thakur, expressing positivity about his new landlords. “You seem nice too.”

But coronavirus changed everything.

After wrapping up his work week at a biotech company, where he's classified as an essential worker, Thakur says he went for a long drive up to Napa to clear his head. That’s when his phone started buzzing with texts from his landlord, he said.

He shared the text messages with KTVU that showed his landlord advised him he would be locked out and his possessions would be placed outside.  She accused of him of violating the “safer at home” order by taking a drive and that he was “putting her life in jeopardy.” 

“I told them, you can’t do that, it’s illegal,” said Thakur. “They’re like ‘We can do whatever we want.’ I said, ‘If you do that, I have to call the cops.”

Police came and tried to resolve the situation, but Thakur says she refused to let him back inside. It was 3 a.m. by the time police left, so he slept in his car, he said. 

Cell phone video taken by a renter in Oakland appears to show her landlord breaking in to her apartment through a window. (Video provided by Tobener Ravenscroft LLC)

“She said ‘I’m okay to give them back the rent and deposit,’ explained Thakur. “I told them I don’t need money, I need shelter.”

When questioned about the incidient, the landlord said she didn’t trust Thakur, which she believes gave her the right to an immediate eviction despite the moratorium.

Anne Tamiko Omura at the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland says her office has been flooded with calls from worried tenants facing situations like this. She reminds them, they’re protected by the law.

“I do believe the moratoriums are clear, there cannot be any eviction activity during this time,” said Omura. “Unless it’s a life threatening situation where you have a tenant doing something to threaten the health and safety of others on the property.”

Butler and Thakur were both able to find new places to call home, but say the stress of their situations still lingers. Both tenants intend to sue their former landlords.

“I didn’t feel safe there anymore, she changed the locks, didn’t give me the new combination to the gate,” said Butler. “Just her behavior was very, very abnormal.”

“Whatever they did, it’s wrong,” said Thakur. “In the end, there’s karma.”