SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The first of the August arrived with a renewed sense of worry for renters in the capital region and California affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Until now, tenants have been protected by a series of overlapping rules on the county, state and federal levels which have put evictions on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. But as the suspensions begin to expire, tenants are staring over the edge of a cliff.
The Judicial Council of California announced earlier this month it would vote on ending its emergency protections for tenants as early as Aug. 14, shifting the onus to act to legislators. With the deadline looming, Gov. Gavin Newsom has extended local governments’ ability to ban evictions until Sept. 30, but many are counting on the Legislature, which is considering multiple bills to extend that ban and protect tenants and property owners who have lost income.
But without new rules to take their place, advocates and lawyers say the most vulnerable renters could face a wave of eviction summons even as the pandemic worsens.
Roughly 7% of California renters surveyed didn’t make rent in July or had payments deferred, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s new Household Pulse Survey designed to measure the affects of COVID-19. The survey found more than 3.8 million tenants in the state had little or no confidence they could make next month’s rent — about 1.9 million homeowners in the survey had the same sentiment about paying their mortgages.
Advocates believe housing insecurity will only grow as the pandemic continues.
“The thing we’ve been scared about is this flood,” said Sarah Ropelato, a managing attorney at Northern California Legal Services. “That will be just devastating to families in Sacramento.”
The Judicial Council rule, passed in April, put a hold on the court proceedings necessary for an eviction. In order to evict a tenant who has not paid rent, landlords must first issue a three-day notice. Then, if the tenant does not pay, landlords can file a lawsuit and serve them with a court summons, which asks them to appear for an eviction trial. The emergency Judicial Council rule said courts will not issue those notices — halting the eviction process in its tracks.
Landlords can still issue notices during the pandemic, but tenants don’t yet have to go to trial. For Sacramento renters like Maria Aguila, the rule is all that stands between them and eviction.
Aguila was working three jobs but contracted COVID-19 and has been unable to work. Just weeks after she missed the first rent check, her landlord served her with an eviction notice. Because of the judicial council rule, Aguila does not have to appear in court or face trial for an eviction. But if the protections end in two weeks time, she will have to stand trial.
The same is true for others — advocates say the number of backlogged cases is staggering, but difficult to calculate — who have fallen behind on rent.
“The courts, basically, are holding the line,” said Kendra Lewis, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance. “When the courts open up, it becomes a free-for-all.
Although landlords almost always come to eviction court with a lawyer, tenants rarely have counsel, according to Sarah Ropelato, a managing attorney at Northern California Legal Services. For poor tenants, she said, an eviction trial is a grueling process which often ends in defeat.
“It’s hard to represent yourself in court, to be able to say things all in the right way that you need to say them,” she explained. “On top of all of the other things that folks or families are dealing with.”
A similar moratorium on the federal level expired July 24, meaning renters in California with federally backed mortgages could be exposed to eviction court proceedings if courts lift the suspension and nothing takes its place. This came as the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment insurance benefits ran out Friday with no replacement on the horizon from Congress.
The county moratorium gives renters 120 days after the rule expires to pay the rent they had missed. But as the pandemic persists, and debts mount, four months is looking like a shorter window.
“It’s just becoming an increasingly untenable proposition for a lot of tenants,” said Kitty Bolte, an advocate with the Sacramento Tenants Union.
THE EVICTIONS NEVER STOPPED
With legal evictions suspended, landlords have increasingly embraced illegal evictions, meaning they deny tenants their due process of a notice and court trial, said Oliver Ehlinger, an attorney for Northern California Legal Services. Landlords have turned to intimidation tactics in the absence of eviction court. Ehlinger said landlords lock tenants out, demand they return keys, and bombard them with ominous letters.
Many of these landlords, Ehlinger says, rely on the fact that their tenants may not understand their full rights — and don’t know when they’re being taken advantage of. Almost all those who have reported illegal eviction to Northern California Legal Services in the past four months have had English as a second language, he said.
Maria, who asked that only her first name be used because she is undocumented, didn’t know about the moratorium. So when her landlord told her she and her daughter had 15 days to leave their one-bedroom North Sacramento apartment, she believed him and left.
When she explained that she’d lost her job at an Italian restaurant because of the coronavirus, Maria remembers what her landlord told her: “I don’t care, you’re still going to have to pay your rent. And if not, you’re going to have to leave.”
Manuel Lares, president of the Lorenzo Patino Council of Sacramento, said landlords have another tactic: “They say either you get out, or we call ICE,” Lares said. “They just mark it off as: they voluntarily left.”
According to the Household Pulse Survey, Latino and Black tenants in California are much more worried than their white and Asian counterparts about paying their rent, reflecting the disproportionate impact on their communities. The Black and Latino unemployment rates have been significantly higher the white unemployment rate, and those groups have also had higher COVID-19 infection rates.
Afraid or unable to seek legal help, many undocumented immigrants turn to community organizations. Ramona Landeros, founder of the Benito Juarez Neighborhood Association in Sacramento, said she regularly hears such stories. Immigrants like Maria who don’t know their full rights as tenants during the pandemic leave without a formal eviction notice ever being filed.
Ehlinger said most undocumented immigrants in Sacramento who have been subjected to such behavior never get legal aid: federally funded organizations like Legal Services North California cannot assist undocumented people, even when their rights have been violated. “It makes it easy for this to happen over and over and over again,” he said.
‘TIME TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUE’
In her announcement that the Judicial Council would soon vote on whether to rescind the court pause on evictions, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, “I urge our sister branches to turn their attention to this critical work to protect people from devastating effects of this pandemic and its recent resurgence.”
Sarah Ropelato explained that the courts believe it is the duty of lawmakers to protect tenants. “Their statement is saying, ‘Legislature: Do your thing. It’s your time to address this issue.’ “
The state Legislature is considering a range of options to protect tenants in the absence of a court freeze.
That includes Assembly Bill 1436, authored by Assembly David Chiu, D-San Francisco, which would halt evictions for tenants who miss payments until the end of the coronavirus state of emergency, plus three months. The measure gives those renters a year to make up missed payments. Chiu revised the bill to give property owners with four units or less to receive a year of mortgage forbearance — while larger properties would get six months of reduced or delayed payments.
Under a proposal by state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, landlords could get a tax credit equal to the unpaid rent during the pandemic if the tenant agrees to repay the rent to the state over 10 years. Senate Bill 1410 would also waive rents for lower-income tenants.
Newsom has specifically pointed to both bills during his coronavirus briefings, and both are scheduled for committee hearings on Aug. 12.
But Madeline Howard, a senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, says the bills don’t go far enough. Tenants who for any reason don’t come to an agreement with their landlord could still face eviction and homelessness. Policy advocates are proposing an amendment to the bill which they say would close its loopholes and keep vulnerable tenants safe.
Ropelato hopes lawmakers see the gravity of the problem: “The thing about renters’ assistance is it has to be at scale,” she said. “In order to prevent the level of harm that is waiting in the wings.”
Meanwhile, tenants who have already been evicted must search for new shelter during a housing shortage. “There’s nowhere for people to go. It’s a pandemic,” Lewis said. “What are people supposed to do?”
If the suspension lifts and new legislation does not take its place, countless more could be forced into such a search. Kendra Lewis put it this way: “It’s do or die.”
©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)