California Renters Face Eviction as Pandemic Protections Expire

Jennifer Dye and her 3-year-old daughter had lived in a one-bedroom backyard cottage in Morgan Hill for 10 months when the coronavirus pandemic hit the Bay Area earlier this year. For the last 15 years, the 36-year-old single mom worked as a manager at a local family-owned Chinese restaurant.

But in mid-March, California’s economy came to a screeching halt as state and local health officials issued unprecedented stay-at-home orders in an effort to slow the coronavirus’ spread. All non-essential businesses closed, forcing restaurant owners to furlough workers and operate via takeout or delivery only.

In a matter of weeks, the demand for unemployment benefits in California reached record numbers with the state’s Economic Development Department processing more than 3.5 million unemployment claims in the first month and a half of the pandemic.

Dye was one of them.

Since then, the economy has slowly reopened, with the state’s unemployment rate dropping to single digits last month for the first time since March.

But not everyone has been able to go back to work.

The Chinese restaurant where Dye works doesn’t have the space to accommodate outdoor dining and, for the time being, the owners don’t need her help fulfilling to-go orders. With most restaurants operating on similar skeleton crews, she’s been unable to find another job and has spent the last eight months scraping together the money she’s received from unemployment in order to make rent.

But when those benefits ran out, so did her ability to pay her rent.

Now, she faces eviction.

“It’s traumatic,” Dye says. “I went from making a decent income and taking care of all my expenses and then some to have a comfortable life on my own without anyone’s help to now being worried I’m going to have to move out of my place.”

Since the start of the pandemic, housing advocates, policy experts and nonprofits have been sounding the alarm on what they say will be an unparalleled wave of evictions.

A recent report by bank investment and advisory firm Stout estimated as of Sept. 14, between 23.3 million and 34 million Americans were at risk for eviction. The document was released by the National Council of State Housing Agencies and based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

By January, the report anticipates 8.4 million renter households—20.1 million individual renters—could be evicted once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium expires. When that happens, the accumulated rent shortfall across the country could be as high as $25.1 billion to $34.3 billion.

In Santa Clara County alone, extremely low income households owe an estimated $117 million or more in back rent and utility payments, according to a recent report by San Jose-based Healing Grove Health Center. The community clinic conducted a phone survey among its patients, who are among the region’s hardest-hit by the pandemic.

Pile Up

In August, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3088—also known as the Covid-19 Tenant Relief Act—into law to protect renters from immediate eviction and prevent small landlords from going into foreclosure.

The legislation requires tenants to pay back 25 percent of late rent accumulated between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31 by Feb. 1. After that, the usual eviction rules apply and landlords can file unlawful detainers in court.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), who co-authored the law, called it a “compromise piece of legislation,” but added he didn’t think it went far enough to protect renters.

“I don’t necessarily sense that it will be [extended], and that’s the discouraging part because we’re all going to suffer as a community as these evictions start piling up in court,” he said. “It’s going to be disastrous when there’s a flood of evictions come February when we’re still in the midst of a pandemic response. … We’re compounding our economic strain due to the pandemic with the economic pain of evictions for potentially millions of Californians.”

Caryn Hreha, an attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, says the number of calls they’ve received for legal help with evictions has increased through the pandemic, especially among Latinx renters who made up 52 percent of calls in the last quarter.

“We’re seeing landlords trying to get around AB 3088,” Hreha said. “Some cases are asking for rent from December 2019 through February, so we’re seeing those cases just now. We’re seeing landlords alleging behavior that kind of just mysteriously arose over the summer that coincides with rent not being paid because of Covid-19. We’re getting calls about lockouts a lot and landlords who are trying to just change the locks.”

While evictions related to non-payment of rent are on hold until February, evictions for other lease violations started up again the first week of September—a provision of AB 3088 backed by landlord groups in Sacramento.

“We applaud the legislature and governor for advancing legislation with protections for tenants truly harmed by Covid, while ensuring that owners can evict nuisance tenants and residents who can afford to pay rent but choose to game the system instead,” California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon said in a statement at the time.

With courts processing other types of evictions once again, Dye fears she and her daughter could be without a place to live in a matter of days as she says her landlord tries to work around the law. Despite being out of a job, Dye says she paid her rent in full through August when the money she received from unemployment ran out.

By the time September rolled around, she had found two local organizations willing to help cover the cost of her rent for the next two months with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

All she needed to do was have her landlord sign off on it.

Her landlord refused.

Without rental assistance, Dye thought the new state law would prevent her from becoming homeless as she cobbled together enough money to pay her landlord 25 percent of September and October’s rent. Instead, she was threatened with eviction.

“She was very unhappy about that,” Dye said of her landlord’s reaction to the partial rent payments. “So, she gave me a 60-day notice to vacate and she said it wasn’t due to the finances, it was due to just cause and [she] made a laundry list of these things that I had done that are false so she could get me out.”

California’s AB 1482, which took effect at the beginning of 2020, restricts a landlord’s ability to evict tenants except in “just cause” situations, such as rent nonpayment, criminal activity or because the owner wants to move in.

The one-bedroom backyard unit Dye has rented out for $1,300 a month for the last year-and-a-half doesn’t have running water. Instead, Dye’s landlord gave her and her daughter access to the main house where they could use the bathroom, shower and laundry machine. But when Dye was unable to pay her rent in full in September, she says her landlord cut off her access to the main house.

“I’ve been using ... one of those camping showers outside that you heat up,” Dye said. “Me and my daughter brush our teeth with the hose...Using the laundromat is not a big deal, but just having to relieve yourself or brush your teeth or take a hot shower, especially with it being winter now and it’s cold at night, it’s just miserable.”

With the 60 days almost up, Dye expects county sheriff’s deputies to lock her out of her home any day now. “I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

BILLS DUE: Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) says a renter relief bill he co-authored, AB 3088, was a “compromise,” and doesn’t go far enough. Photo courtesy of Ash Kalra)

Surge of Need

Over the last nine months, Sacred Heart Community Service Director Poncho Guevara says the San Jose nonprofit has experienced a “tremendous surge of human need.”

In the early days of the pandemic, local elected officials, tech companies, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations banded together to launch Silicon Valley Strong, a coronavirus relief fund dedicated to helping low-income residents pay their bills. Within three days, the initial $11 million raised was divvied out.

Guevara says in the first five months of the pandemic, Sacred Heart and its network partners assisted nearly 12,000 households in Santa Clara County. But the calls kept coming in, with a few hundred new households looking for financial assistance each day.

“There are so many different types of stories of what people are trying to make ends meet during this time,” Guevara said. “Even though there have been rules in place ... that have actually helped prevent people from being pushed out right away, we’re seeing a lot of families that have been doing everything they can to keep up with rent, in part because they don’t believe that these policies are actually enforceable, that their landlords just won’t find a way to get rid of them.”

He fears for a scale of evictions that California lacks the resources and infrastructure to handle starting on the first day of February. That would crank up the dial on an already unstable housing crisis crippling the state.

Todd Rothbard, an eviction attorney of 45 years, disagrees.

Over the years, the seasoned lawyer has represented both tenants and landlords. Due to the ever-changing pandemic rules around evictions, he doubts there will be an eviction wave in early 2021. “Right now there's a lot of vacancies out there, and landlords don’t like vacancies,” Rothbard said. “The last thing they want to do is add to those vacancies.”

While advocates and other attorneys—like Hreha at the Law Foundation—have said landlords are trying to find workarounds to AB 3088 by evicting renters for other reasons, Rothbard argues those evictions likely have merit, and that landlords will find a way to evict problem tenants with whatever options are available.

“If you can’t evict for nonpayment of rent, you’re going to try to evict for other reasons,” he said. “It’s sort of the natural way that a property owner is going to proceed if that’s the only avenue open to them.”

Bills Arrive

Mathew Reed, a policy manager with housing nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home, says it’s been a challenge to communicate the different eviction moratorium rules and protections to tenants. At the beginning of the pandemic, Newsom left it up to local governments to enact their own eviction restrictions. The San Jose City Council enacted its moratorium first, with other local cities and Santa Clara County following suit.

“It was complicated and that they were overlapping jurisdictional authority just made it harder,” Reed said. “There was a period of time in which people were not able to exercise their rights fully because they didn’t know what they were.”

Even when the rules became more clear, Reed says reaching people was an uphill battle.

“I think it’s always the case that the folks who are most vulnerable, it’s also the most difficult for them to get the information,” he said. “To the extent that we know anything, it’s really the lower wage service workers ... [that] are also likely to be the people that had the least access to the support resources and information resources that they need.”

This week, California Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced a new bill that would extend the current eviction protections through Dec. 31, 2021.

“We are again staring down an eviction cliff that could leave millions homeless in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” Chiu said. “We must keep Californians housed and look towards providing relief to struggling renters and landlords.”

Should Chiu’s bill be successful, renters could avoid eviction by paying 25 percent of rent owed between Sept. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021. The remaining rent would then be converted to civil debt and landlords could file lawsuits in small claims court to recover what they’re owed starting Jan. 1, 2022.

In the meantime, with Feb. 1 quickly approaching, many housing advocates and progressive lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: the only way to prevent the eviction cliff is to “cancel the rents”—which has become a rallying cry for the tenants-rights movement across the country—by providing tenants with financial assistance.

In April, Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) proposed giving Americans making less than $130,000 a year at least $2,000 a month for a year to help cover expenses, including rent. But Khanna’s bill, along with other rental stimulus efforts, have been unable to make it out of both houses of Congress.

“There’s just been obstinance in the Senate,” Khanna said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). “What I would do is I would have the federal government step in and provide the rent so small business landlords are taken care of and renters are taken care of.”

While Biden would most likely support bolder efforts to help renters, Khanna says getting a bill to his desk will come down to two Senate runoff races in Georgia, where Democrats have a chance to flip the balance of power in the upper chamber.

On a local level, advocates have already tried—and failed—to get elected officials to cancel rent. In April, San Jose council members Raul Peralez and Magdalena Carrasco withdrew a proposal to suspend rent after former City Attorney Rick Doyle said he worried it would violate the U.S. Constitution’s fifth amendment, which prohibits private property from being taken without just compensation.

But Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney at the Law Foundation, argues rent could be canceled under local government’s police powers “as long as there are provisions made to make sure it doesn’t have an adverse impact on landlords.”

Beyond advocating for the federal government to cancel rent and mortgages and enact widespread rental assistance, Trujillo says cities and counties must also ensure financial assistance is accessible.

“I think there’s going to be a role for local governments to address gaps in who can access eviction relief, especially for folks who can't access relief because of immigration status or because of whatever documentation barriers may exist,” he said. “If a local government is willing to be a leader and to cancel rent, there is a way across the policy that is workable and I think that would create for more to be done at the federal level.”

13 Comments

  1. Evictions need to happen. You don’t pay your rent, it is stealing. Does Safeway let you keep taking groceries out of their store if you don’t pay? Does the electric company keep the lights on if you don’t pay? Of course not.

    You made a commitment to pay your rent, if you can’t do it, move in with your family or move to a state you can. But you need to free up that unit so someone who is willing to pay can live there. You can not drop the entire load of Rona on landlords. The state still collects property tax, the IRS is still getting these, as are the utilities, insurance, and the banks. Forbearance is not forgiveness, and its time to settle up. You have had long enough to make arrangements, now its time to get this over. You are adults and you know better.

  2. After reading this article again, I think this should be a cautionary tale for all homeowners considering dipping your toe in the ADU pool. Being a landlord is a job. There are a litany of laws written to protect the tenants and as a landlord you are held to a higher standard. That means you better come into court 100% perfect. Worse than the laws, is the fact that once the tenant signs the lease, they have a life estate, which means you have to house them forever or until they find a bigger chump than you.

    Even in good times, being a landlord is a difficult job. Having a tenant in your backyard is suicide, sharing vital services such as heat or water is lunacy. Layer in the new COVID precedents of eviction moratoriums and rent cancelations for a string of bad luck, and you are certifiable loony bin material to invest $100,000 to put up with this at home.

    First, if what Ms. Dye claims is true, this must be a new or one time landlord. No landlord who knows what they are doing would cut off power or water in a rent dispute. That’s something from a Dicken’s novel and has been illegal for as long as I know. From how this reads, Ms. Dye may not owe any rent if the unit has not or does not meet habitability standards. Second, who knows if said landlord’s claims are true and vice versa, but you get a peak at how you will be treated as a landlord. All the claims of the tenant will be considered Truth and all your claims will be considered made up, you as the landlord have to dig out from there. And you will likely get a nice centerfold in SJI or the Mercury News. That’s it, end of story.

    Do not put one of these ADUs in your backyard. It may not be your biggest mistake, but its will be up there. Turn it into a artist shed and learn to make pottery, you will lose much less money and your resale value will be much higher.

  3. I live in Morgan Hill and there are plenty of help wanted signs up in the stores around here. So I don’t understand why you can’t find a job, you need to look with the pandemic retail is scrambling to find workers. As for being evicted you should just move out if your not able to pay rent and live with a family member for free, then you wont have to worry about rent at all. So just get out it is the right thing to do.
    I’m sure the landlord has a mortgage to pay if they don’t pay it you both will be evicted . So just move out!

  4. > I’m sure the landlord has a mortgage to pay if they don’t pay it you both will be evicted .

    Most of the voting population of San Jose doesn’t know this.

    Sam Liccardo doesn’t seem to know this.

  5. I understand the landlords’ frustration, but it seems to me that the answer to what has been just shy of a natural disaster is relief from the government. That is, after all, why I pay my taxes. Rather than castigating renters who have lost jobs due to government shutdowns of job sites, it seems landlords should be seeking rent or mortgage relief directly from that government.

    People are funny, though. The remarks here remind me of when I worked a 2nd job delivering food and the clients would get mad at me, the delivery guy, for mistakes the restaurant made on their order. I got sniped at or stiffed on the tip. That was at the height of the Great Recession. Some things never change.

  6. Shut down the economy and money ceases to flow.

    Somebody is going to get the short end of the stick. Will it be landlords or tenants?

    A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on Paul’s support.

    Peter, not so much.

  7. > That is, after all, why I pay my taxes.

    You don’t pay enough taxes to pay for all of the disaster relief. Or, for the government employee pension fund bailouts. Or for Universal Basic Income. Or for medicare for all.

    NO ONE pays enough taxes to pay for this.

    The government can borrow more money, but they are already at their credit limit.

    They can print more money, but then money becomes worthless and no one will accept money any more.

    The only other option is to go back to a barter system or tribal warfare.

    Which do you vote for?

  8. “People are funny, though.”

    Everybody’s funny, you’re funny too.

    So what window does a landlord drive up to get get your rent that you can’t drive to? What makes you think the government doesn’t want these landlords to foreclose?

    https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/california-legislature-creates-53302/

    SB 1079 says that NGOs and State of California have the right of first refusal to buy foreclosed properties. What do you think will happen there?

    Guess who is going to buy these properties? NGOs? Please, Blackstone, Equity International, Google, Facebook, Berkshire will buy up the choice ones and the NGOs and the state of California will get a few too to house homeless, etc.

    Once some chump landlord realizes that tenants never have to pay rent again and the tenants catch up on that fact and do stop paying, Uncle Sam and Warren are going to step in and take this intentionally depressed asset off your hands right before they foreclose. And maybe in 2022 the state will go back to doing their job and evict deadbeat tenants. That is what is behind these moratoriums, they are forcing mom and pops out of business, on purpose, for their coalition of NGOs and donors.

    This is outright theft through the encouragement of theft by tenants, by design. So before you think you know what you are talking about and make irrelevant comparisons, learn a bit and think.

    But I guess its easier to just think you’re funny.

  9. The unfortunate part of this article is that most of what Ms. Dye is saying isn’t entirely true. I know both Jennifer and the landlord. Jennifer has never been told she could not go in the main house. The main house was put on a 14 day quarantine at the end of August when the landlords grandson tested positive for Covid 19. After the 14 days were passed Jennifer had full access to the main house. She choose not to use it because she stated she felt awkward.
    It is just a shame that in times like this people will milk the system just to get any easy buck. Sound to me you should just move.

  10. I was not addressing ALL of society’s ills and nothing in my remarks implied that our taxes should cover everything. I was addressing this pandemic. One thing. Just one. One.

  11. I’m a little amazed of the proposal to give all Americans with an income of $130K or less $2K monthly. Maybe in Ro’s sphere $130K ain’t much, but in most parts of the country it’s still pretty good.

  12. Landlords can be foreclosed, but the tenants remain, they just become the customers of the mortgage holder, or a conservator during a LLC bankruptcy.

    The reality is that many landlords were over leveraged prior to the COVID crisi, and they knew it was just luck that they kept the cash flows just above survival.

    Now they are being hit, I agree that mortgages and taxes should be put on pause and landlords should be able to submit for grants to cover operational expenses as long as the COVID and the economic damages are still in place. But they are not entitled to any profits at this time as long as they don’t pay mortgage or taxes, right?

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