The number of evictions in San Jose decreased in 2020 after pandemic-related protections were adopted, but many tenants lack the resources to protect themselves once eviction bans expire at the end of June.
Landlord harassment, months of back rent and a struggling economy are just some of San Jose tenants’ concerns—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So many people are in situations where they have absolutely nothing,” said Nina Rosenblatt, a Sacred Heart Community Service official working in homelessness prevention. “In the housing department, we receive many hundreds of calls every day … about not being able to pay the rent, no savings, no food.”
Perla Ovin made one of those calls. She needed help with food and rent after losing her job as the virus spread rapidly.
Ovin lives in low-income housing in East San Jose with her son and husband, who used to work two jobs. Ovin’s husband lost one job due to the pandemic and his hours have been drastically cut at the other. Ovin spoke with San José Spotlight through a Spanish translator.
“The property management has been incredibly difficult—if we don’t pay the rent in 2-3 days of the day in which I’m supposed to pay the rent, they are on the phone calling me,” Ovin said. “Of course the reason we’re not paying the rent is because we are just physically not able to pay the rent. It’s not because we don’t want to.”
Ovin’s family has lived in the same apartment for more than a decade, she said, and has never had any problems with her landlord before the pandemic started.
“I feel like we have to pay the other bills to stay afloat,” she said. “We have to pay those other behind bills and the rent can wait a little bit longer, especially because my protections under the eviction moratorium. But they’ve still been so difficult and not understanding of my situation at all.”
To alleviate fears, Gov. Gavin Newsom in January announced a statewide extension of the eviction moratorium through June 30. But the measure does not forgive rent, and many more renters in San Jose could face eviction once the protections expire. The city and county are quickly launching programs to administer relief funds.
“It is so important that during these months that there is relief for these people,” Rosenblatt said. “And more than that, (it is important that) people are able to stay housed during this time of great suffering, that people are not being evicted and that they recognize their rights to stay in their homes.”
Santa Clara County’s Office of Supportive Housing is considering expanding legal services to help tenants navigate the process of paying back rent. County officials have proposed partnering with law students at Pepperdine University to provide mediation services for tenants and landlords.
Consuelo Hernandez, the department’s director, urged county lawmakers to consider more funding for legal services, particularly in the county’s Mediation and Ombuds Services department.
“The existing system of nonprofit partners are not well resourced to handle the volume of calls from tenants and landlords wanting to understand their rights or the wave of evictions that are anticipated when the eviction moratorium expires,” she wrote in a report.
Evictions drop after shutdowns
According to data obtained by San José Spotlight, 307 eviction notices were served to tenants between July and December 2018. The number of evictions rose to 426 during the same time in 2019.
And it was on track to keep rising.
San Jose City Hall received 181 eviction notices between January and March 2020, right before the county went into a regional stay-at-home order due to COVID-19.
Evictions occurred again after Aug. 31—37 more were served until Dec. 2020—but landlords had to provide a “just cause” for ending a lease, as they did before the moratorium. San Jose’s just cause policy prevents unlawful evictions by requiring landlords to provide a legitimate reason for eviction, including nonpayment of rent, nuisance behavior and criminal activity, among others.
Some of the reasons for the evictions at the end of 2020 included a tenant’s nonpayment of rent, a violation of the lease or an unapproved subtenant.
San Jose does not have comprehensive eviction information prior to July 2018 due to a difference in eviction data tracking.
City officials say, however, that not everyone who receives an eviction notice loses their home.
“Tenants typically have an opportunity to fix or cure the cause of the (eviction) notice,” said Jeff Scott, a spokesperson for San Jose’s housing department. “If the tenant cures the situation, they can stay in the apartment.”
Tenants who believe they’re being evicted for invalid reasons can take their complaints to the courts, Scott said.
Some face harassment
Another tenant, a single mother of two young children, said her situation has left her feeling vulnerable and frustrated. San José Spotlight withheld her name for fear of retribution from her landlord. The mother sublet her east San Jose apartment after living there since late 2019.
When shutdowns started in March 2020, the mother lost her job at a local casino, as well as her second job as a waitress. By May, she had run through most of her savings to pay the rent. When she was unable to pay rent the next month, the harassment started.
“I was trying to explain to (my landlord) and have a frank conversation,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not trying to work … there’s no place for me to work right now.”
Her landlord began chaining patio chairs and tables to a tree across the property, so she couldn’t use them while her kids played outside. She claims the landlord also called her names and locked the laundry rooms on site.
The woman said she owes about $3,000 to her landlord in back rent. She ended up moving into her sister’s home with her two children, because she didn’t feel safe in her apartment at night.
Tenants cannot be evicted for not paying rent from September 2020 to June 2021 as long as they pay 25% of rent they owe from Sept. 1 to June 2021 no later than June 30, 2021. If a tenant receives an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent, they must fill out and sign a “declaration of COVID-19-related financial distress” form within 15 days.
But advocates say the rules and deadlines have changed so much that both tenants and landlords often don’t know their rights. And there are plenty of ways that tenants are still forced out illegally.
“If we do try to push people to tell their landlords they have rights, they’re very fearful that they’re going to end up on the street if they challenge their landlord,” Rosenblatt said. “They know the power their landlord has over them with things like eviction.”