Advocates urge Santa Clara County to forgive rent as end of eviction moratorium looms
An apartment building is pictured in downtown San Jose in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

    South Bay resident Chris Rios worries he’ll soon become homeless. His tutoring income dropped by half because of the novel coronavirus. His parents’ pay plummeted, too. They’re still waiting for federal checks intended to support those impacted by the virus.

    While waiting, they’ve fallen nearly $4,000 behind on rent for their three-bedroom Milpitas apartment. Santa Clara County’s eviction moratorium has kept them housed so far. But soon, he’ll need to start paying it back, alongside $3,500 for each month’s rent now. He doesn’t have it.

    “It feels like I’m being penalized for having done everything right, and there really isn’t a single thing I could’ve done — to work harder, to work longer — to put myself in a better situation,” said Rios, 26. “There’s nothing I could’ve done.”

    Rios isn’t alone. The county’s eviction moratorium ends May 31 and renters will have 120 more days to pay back any overdue rent as they continue to pay their current rent. Housing advocates fear evictions will be common. They’re lobbying the county to forgive unpaid rent of people who suffered financially for following public health directions and sheltering in place.

    But county officials said Tuesday they won’t consider implementing a rent forgiveness policy. The Board of Supervisors will consider extending the eviction moratorium Tuesday, a move San Jose officials made this week, if the governor extends his related executive order.

    This debate is occurring across the country, including in the U.S. Congress, as public officials weigh how to stem the pandemic’s economic fallout. San Jose and now Santa Clara County officials have said they don’t have the legal authority to offer rent relief. While it’s difficult to assess without a specific proposal, two law professors interviewed by San José Spotlight said a rent forgiveness policy could potentially be constitutional — as long as it compensates landlords, too.

    Without this relief, Bay Area advocates worry the upcoming recession’s recovery will mirror the one from 2008, where low-income communities and people of color were displaced and saw their poverty increase.

    “It’s black and brown people who are testing positive (from the virus), who are working at service jobs, who are losing their jobs, who can’t work from home,” said Fernando Martí, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. “Unless we’re going to be able to forgive those rents, we’re going to be adding to the racial disparities that already exist.”

    ‘Unreasonable’ expectations in California’s most unequal metro area

    The COVID-19 crisis and shelter-in-place orders have largely shut down Santa Clara County since mid-March. While it’s saved lives, it has also spurred furloughs and layoffs, making it harder for some residents to keep up with their rent.

    Now the county is reopening and people are slowly returning to work. In the San Jose-Sunnyvale Santa Clara metro area, the most unequal in California, attorneys worry residents won’t be unable to pay what they owe in addition to their current rent.

    Nowhere else in the country has “canceled rent” because of COVID-19, said Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. But putting one in place here makes sense, given the extreme housing costs and low vacancy rates, he added.

    Many in the county barely make enough to keep up with rent under normal circumstances, advocates said. Some are still struggling to get by with federal COVID-19 aid. The roughly 120,000 undocumented people living here don’t have access to that financial help, Trujillo said.

    “These families are in this situation because they can’t earn an income because of the county health order,” Trujillo said. “So, it’s really unreasonable to expect them to be able to pay off that debt at the same time that they’re resuming their normal rent payments as the moratorium lifts.”

    Limits of local authority

    Chris Rios, 26, is among Santa Clara County residents worried about how to keep up with rent after the moratorium lifts. Photo by Chris Rios

    While San Jose and the county have nixed the idea, a rent forgiveness policy could potentially be constitutional if it takes steps like forgiving landlords’ mortgage payments or offering them the equivalent backpay of rent, said Bob Solomon, clinical professor of law for the University of California, Irvine.

    “When government takes private property, as a general rule, it has to compensate the owner,” Solomon said. “Unless you’re going to provide for a full government takeover or a way for the landlord to be fully compensated, there are potential constitutional problems.”

    As of now, rent relief, at least locally, appears to be off the table. Individuals from Trujillo’s law foundation met with county officials on Tuesday, he said, but the county’s response to San José Spotlight’s questions appeared to squash the idea.

    That doesn’t mean local governments have given up trying to limit evictions.

    The San Jose City Council on Tuesday extended the city’s eviction moratorium through June 30 and laid out a timeline for tenants to pay back overdue rent from the moratorium period.

    The new policy allows tenants 12 months to fully repay overdue rent after June 30. They only need to pay back half the past due rent within six months of the expiration of the moratorium. It also froze rents for rent-controlled units and incentivized landlords to temporarily reduce those fees.

    “Ensuring that residents have safe housing during this pandemic has been one of the highest priorities of the council since the beginning of this crisis,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo. A housing advocate lauded the council’s approach, but acknowledged there is more to do.

    “The thing that everybody is looking for is significant state or federal action to support tenants and take the pressure off of landlords,” said Mathew Reed, a policy manager for the nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home. “Do I think these local efforts will solve the problem? No. But it feels like there are limits to what local efforts can do.”

    ‘Why wait until we’ve fallen’

    Rios believes rent forgiveness is the reasonable solution. His family was homeless just three years ago, he said, and they worked extremely hard to get housed again. It’s harder to recover once you’re homeless, Rios said, and these payments could push a lot of people over the brink.

    “Why wait until we’ve fallen over the edge into the water to try pulling ourselves out,” Rios asked, “when we have the opportunity to avoid falling in all together?”

    Contact Rachel Leven at [email protected] or follow @rachelpleven on Twitter.

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