Elizabeth Abel walked up to the front door of her house for the first time in four months and rang the bell. She’d just flown halfway around the world to drop in, unannounced, on the man who’d taken over her home.
When he came to the door, Abel says, the man didn’t seem surprised to see her—or the police officer standing beside her. “Oh, hi,” he said.
Abel peered behind him into her living room, which was practically empty. Most of her furniture was gone: a dining table and four chairs, two easy chairs, an antique piece. Her books and rugs were nowhere to be seen. Even the artwork had been taken off the walls.
As Abel walked around the place she’d called home for three decades, she had the distinct feeling that her life had been erased. In the family room, a small sofa, a table, and a television had been removed. Out on the back deck, the wooden table and benches were missing. The bedrooms were emptied out, her mattresses crammed into the office. Closets were sealed with blue painter’s tape. She turned to the man, who had been renting her place for the past several months—without paying. “What is going on here?” she demanded. “What are you doing?”
In October 2015, as she was planning a semester-long research trip to Paris, Abel logged on to SabbaticalHomes.com to find someone to rent her house. The site bills itself as a sort of Airbnb for academics; its motto is “A place for minds on the move.” Abel, an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley, quickly received a bunch of responses, the first of which came from a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College named David Peritz.
Peritz visited Abel’s cozy two-bedroom Spanish Revival in Kensington, a pocket of suburban affluence just north of Berkeley. He’d grown up in nearby Sonoma County, and he said he and his wife and their teenage son were spending some time on the West Coast to be close to family and friends. Peritz liked what he saw—the view of the Golden Gate, the office in the detached garage. There was one small thing, however: His wife had severe allergies, Peritz told Abel; could he store the small rug in the bedroom elsewhere for the duration of the rental? She was hesitant at first but agreed when he later suggested a storage facility.
Abel, now 71, didn’t feel much of a connection with Peritz, two decades her junior. Still, she thought to herself, “Oh, come on. He’s a professor.” She found him polite and gracious, and she didn’t bother asking for references, let alone do a background check. She didn’t notice until much later that his personal checks lacked a home address. Why would she? That was precisely the point of Sabbatical Homes; unlike Craigslist or Airbnb, it was opening your home not to random people, but to colleagues. (As the site’s founder put it in a press release, “There is an implicit degree of trust amongst academics.”) When Abel discussed her would-be renter with her husband, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology who spends most of the year at the University of Texas-Austin, she didn’t mention any misgivings.
So in January 2016, Abel headed to the Latin Quarter to work on a new book on Virginia Woolf, and Peritz moved into her home.
In early February, Abel noticed that Peritz hadn’t paid the rent by the first of the month, as they’d agreed upon. After a week’s delay and several apologies, the money appeared in Abel’s account. “Okay,” she thought, “he’s a little disorganized.”
In March, Peritz again failed to pay on time. He said his wife had an emergency dental procedure that they’d had to pay for out of pocket, and he once again profusely apologized for the inconvenience. Getting worried, Abel gave him a chance to break the lease, but he declined, promising to catch up on his payments.
By the time April 1 came and went without a rent check, Abel had had enough. She wrote Peritz to tell him she was taking him to small-claims court. Around the same time, Abel’s neighbors began writing her increasingly concerned emails. One of them had even seen Peritz taking her furniture down the driveway to the office in the garage late at night. They rarely, if ever, saw his wife or son.
Abel got in touch with the Kensington Police Department, which sent an officer by the house to talk with Peritz. The officer emailed Abel to tell her that he thought Peritz was “trying to establish squatters rights or lock you out,” and that she should have a cop accompany her when she eventually came back home. Someone from the police department would tell her she should start the eviction process as soon as possible. It might take weeks, even months, to get Peritz out of her house.
It’s not easy to evict someone in California. Generally that’s a good thing—especially in the Bay Area, one of the nation’s most expensive places to live. In a region where it’s not uncommon for one-bedroom apartments to rent for more than $3,000 a month, there’s an obvious incentive for landlords to find excuses to force out tenants and jack up the rent.
When a tenant stops paying rent, the eviction process goes like this: First, he or she must be served a three-day notice of what he owes. Once that notice has expired without payment, the landlord has to file what’s known as an unlawful detainer complaint, which must then be served to the renter along with a court summons. The renter has five days to respond, and either party can request a court date within the next 20 days. Along the way, the case can get delayed for any number of reasons, stretching out the process to a couple of months. In the meantime, the tenant stays put, rent-free.
This process was set up in part to protect tenants from predatory landlords. But in some instances it has provided cover for people looking to score a few months of free housing. In 2008, SF Weekly reported that there were between 20 and 100 serial evictees operating in San Francisco—bouncing from home to home without ever paying a dime.
The sharing economy has provided new opportunities for grifters to game the system. So-called Airbnb squatters—like the pair of brothers who refused to leave a Palm Springs condo in the summer of 2014 after paying one month’s rent—have become more common. It’s enough of an issue that Airbnb has a page devoted to the topic; it warns that local laws may allow long-term guests to establish tenants’ rights.
“I’m always amazed at how many risks people take with their home,” says Leah Simon-Weisberg, the legal director at a Bay Area tenants’ rights organization and a commissioner on Berkeley’s rent board. “You let these total strangers in, you know nothing about their credit, you’ve never met them before, and you let them into your home with your stuff. I mean, it kind of blows my mind.”
A day after Abel cut her sabbatical short and flew home to confront Peritz in person, she sent him an email to confirm that she wanted him out so she could move back in on May 1.
Peritz responded several days later. He wrote that he wasn’t “presently in a position to vacate the premises.” He also told her he’d been in touch with an attorney, and said if Abel tried to evict him, they’d end up in court, which “could be expensive, time consuming and draining for both of us.”
Peritz also blamed Abel for his inability to find a new place to stay, claiming that she had “submitted a false feedback report” on SabbaticalHomes.com. The lawyer, he said, had called it a “textbook case of libel.” “I realize that your intentions in making that report were good,” Peritz wrote, “but it remains the case that what you reported was false and that we have been damaged by it.” He said if she was willing to negotiate or arbitrate a settlement, he was “amenable to releasing you from all potential liability that could result from your false report.”
Abel was stunned. Not only had a tenured professor who lists “social contract theory” among his research interests exploited her trust, but now he was digging in and dragging things out. How much time, effort, and money would it take to get back into the home where she’d raised her son, written a couple of books, and lived for the better part of her adult life?
In early May, Abel moved into a neighbor’s house right across the street from her home. There, in an upstairs bedroom, she set up what she semi-jokingly refers to as “command central.” “I became,” she says, “relatively obsessed with all this.”
The room had two windows, one facing Abel’s home. She would often sit in the comfortable chair she’d placed next to the front window—alongside a stack of folders full of correspondence with her lawyer and various state and local agencies. Every day, she looked out and saw Peritz’s red pickup truck parked on the street.
With the help of a private investigator, Abel began to learn about Peritz’s erratic rental history. For starters, she discovered that when he first reached out to her—assuring her in an email, “We have sublet and house-sat several times before, and have references to say that we are responsible, considerate, quiet, clean and reasonably easy going”—he was in the middle of being evicted from another rental home in Berkeley. (The case was eventually settled out of court.) The PI also turned up at least one eviction attempt in New York City, as well as multiple federal and New York state tax liens.
There was more. After Abel had complained to SabbaticalHomes.com, the site’s founder, Nadege Conger, alerted several other users whom Peritz had been in touch with and blocked his account. When he created a new account with a different email address, that was blocked, too. Conger also connected Abel with a New York City couple, both professors, who’d threatened Peritz with a lawsuit when he stopped paying rent while subletting their apartment in 2015. When the couple returned from a six-month trip, they claimed Peritz owed them approximately $5,375. Photos show that their apartment was a mess: Furniture was broken, paintings had gone missing, and the floors had been stripped from what looked like repeated scrubbing. (Peritz had told them in an email that he’d been mopping frequently to keep down the dust from construction next door.) The couple didn’t write a negative review of Peritz because they didn’t think it would make much of a difference, and they didn’t contact his supervisors at Sarah Lawrence—a small liberal arts college in nearby Westchester County—because they feared a lawsuit.
Armed with this information, Abel reached out to people who knew Peritz—colleagues at UC-Berkeley, old classmates, anyone who might have some insight into his motivations. Some of his longtime friends agreed to try to convince him to leave her house, and soon.
As May stretched on, an anonymous blog called David Peritz—Unlawful Detainer popped up. “Do Not Rent Your Home to David Peritz,” the site blares; Peritz’s official headshot is stamped “Serial Evictee.” It’s not clear who made it; Abel says she had nothing to do with it. (“I wouldn’t know how to, first of all,” she told me.)
Abel eventually reached out to Sarah Lawrence to see if it might investigate Peritz’s behavior. In a brief, apologetic response, Dean of the College Kanwal Singh wrote that the school “cannot take any action in this case as it has nothing to do with the College.”
Abel’s colleagues at UC-Berkeley, on the other hand, weren’t shy about getting involved. She had seen that Peritz had a copy of a book by political scientist Wendy Brown; figuring that he might admire Brown’s work, Abel asked her and her longtime partner, renowned gender theorist Judith Butler, if they’d mind contacting him. They agreed.
Butler sent Peritz two epic, eviscerating emails. The first began, “I have recently become aware of your scurrilous behavior—effectively squatting in the home of my colleague, Elizabeth Abel. If you are not out of that apartment within five days time, I will write to every colleague in your field explaining the horrible scam you have committed.” The second, written less than a week later, bore the subject line “your miscalculation” and included this withering coup de grâce:
…please accept the fact that you have painted yourself into a corner, and that you have to leave promptly, and with an apology and a payment plan, in order to avoid any further destruction to your professional and personal world. Your itinerary of self-destruction is a stellar one.
Brown’s email was equally harsh. “It’s past time for you to leave. And in case you are wondering whether there are any future possibilities of teaching at Berkeley, the answer is an emphatic no,” she wrote. “The game is up.”
I’ve reached out multiple times to Peritz to get his side of the story. In his response to my initial email, he denied “the veracity of most of what is said about me” on the blog about him. He said he would meet with me, if only to correct the record. He then stopped responding to my emails and phone calls. After a later exchange of messages to set up a meeting, Peritz said his lawyer had “strongly advised” him against commenting further. He ultimately responded to just one of the many questions I emailed him and his attorney.
Without hearing from Peritz, it’s impossible to know why he’s jumped from one messy rental fight to another. Some of his old friends shake their heads at his situation but will not speculate on the record about his motivations. One longtime acquaintance declined an interview request, writing in an email, “David Peritz was once a friend of mine, and I am reluctant to play a part in a story that would make his life more difficult.”
As news of his run-in with Abel has spread among the academic community, it has trickled into his professional life. While Peritz was in California over the summer (and part time in the fall), he gave lectures in a number of continuing-education institutes and at area senior centers. A group of students pushed to cancel his continuing-education classes at UC-Berkeley and other Bay Area universities. Acknowledging the buzz about Peritz’s rental history, the director of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute, a nonprofit offering classes to retirees, told a group of colleagues in an email that he’d written Peritz to assure him that “attempts to besmirch your reputation will have no bearing on our mutually rewarding relationship.” (The director, Robert Fordham, responded to a request for comment by writing, “Prof. David Peritz continues to be a teacher at the Fromm Institute who is highly evaluated by his students for his work in the classroom with them.”)
Peritz returned to Sarah Lawrence to teach this past fall; a college spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. But it appears that he will continue to live at least part time in the Bay Area through the spring. He told me in an email that he was making frequent trips between New York and California to help care for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. “I will continue to do so so long as I am able to,” he wrote. “I have done some teaching in the Bay Area to help offset the costs of my trips.”
According to the course registry for San Francisco State University’s continuing-education program, he’ll be teaching a class there starting in January. The name of the course: “Ethics and Politics of New Technology.”
In late May, Peritz and Abel came to a settlement agreement: Peritz had to vacate her house by 4 p.m. on Memorial Day and pay the bulk of what he still owed her starting in the fall.*
When the day came, she gathered across the street with a few friends and neighbors, watching Peritz slowly load his truck. At four o’clock, Abel crossed the street, walked up to Peritz, and asked for the keys. He handed them over, and, after a testy back-and-forth about his belongings that were still inside the house, Abel’s friends hauled them out to the curb.
When Peritz drove off, Abel popped open some champagne and her friends toasted his departure. He was finally gone.
Moving back into her house, though, wasn’t without incident. First of all, Abel had to move all her furniture back into her house from her office and basement, where Peritz had stored it. And when she went to put her pictures back on the walls, Abel realized she couldn’t figure out where exactly they’d previously hung: The nails had been removed, the holes had been spackled over, and the walls had been repainted.
Abel holds out hope that her experience could lead to a change in California’s eviction laws, or at least keep someone else from being duped. And while her trust in people was “radically challenged” by her encounter with Peritz, she says she has felt that soften as time has gone by. “I still feel that most people are trustworthy,” she says. “It’s something about my temperament and inclination to believe what people say.”
According to the terms of their settlement, Peritz was scheduled to begin paying Abel his back rent at the end of September, though she resigned herself to never seeing that money. But one night, Abel returned home to find an envelope containing an $800 money order—his first settlement payment. It had been slipped through the mail slot in her front door. “He does manage,” Abel told me the next day, “to keep one off-guard.”
*Correction: This sentence has been revised to more accurately reflect the outcome of Abel’s case.