New state and federal laws approved this month would punish landlords with steep fines and even jail time if they try to evict someone behind on rent. But that’s not necessarily reassuring news for tenants.
While housing attorneys and tenants’ rights activists say the laws will shield more renters from property owners who want to force them out, the regulations can be hard for tenants and landlords to understand because they interact and overlap with each other and existing landlord-tenant law.
And it gets even more complicated against the backdrop of California’s pre-pandemic housing crisis.
“The pandemic is exacerbating our underlying housing and homelessness crisis in the state,” said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a legal aid group in California. “So many people, especially those who were barely making it before, have lost their jobs and are not making it any more.”
But property owners have expenses and debts that need to be paid, too, and if they can’t collect rent, their finances suffer the same as a renters’ do, Howard said. Californians need more from the federal government than just eviction protections, she added.
“This is not enough, we need money,” Howard told San José Spotlight. “Landlords are hurting right now, too, and that is really important.”
Gustavo Gonzalez and his wife own two small apartment complexes in San Jose. The self-described mom-and-pop landlords have 14 units, all of them rent-controlled.
Gonzalez said tenants in one of the units are having trouble paying rent due to COVID-19. But he has no intention of evicting the family or anyone else. Still, eventually he’s going to need that overdue rent to pay his own bills.
“It is a strain on my family just as it is on them,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve got to pay my mortgage and my utility bills and my handymen.”
Gonzalez said he often visits his tenants and develops familiar relationships with them. He decried the latest state and federal laws as unnecessarily driving a wedge between tenants and landlords like himself.
When rent is due
As city and county eviction moratoriums around the state expired at the end of August, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020 (CTRA) which forbids landlords from evicting tenants before February for past-due rent owed from March to August.
Tenants in Santa Clara County will still have to pay those debts, at least half of by Feb. 28 and the full amount no later than Aug. 31, 2021. After that, landlords can sue tenants to collect the unpaid balance in small claims court but the CTRA prevents tenants from being evicted for non-payment of rent for that six month period.
From Sept. 1 to Jan. 31, the CTRA requires tenants to pay at least 25% of the rent they owe for those months before February to avoid eviction. The new state law also requires tenants to provide their landlord with a “declaration of hardship” within 15 days of receiving an eviction notice.
Local housing attorneys said they welcomed the new protections from Sacramento but worry all the restrictions will bewilder tenants and leave some out in the cold.
“Tenants are confused and they may not know what an eviction notice means or have the wherewithal to respond within 15 days, especially if they need to secure legal counsel to understand it,” said Michael Trujillo, a housing attorney at the Silicon Valley Law Foundation.
And now that the federal government is involved, that confusion could be a nationwide problem.
“The No. 1 takeaway for tenants is to seek legal advice if they are having trouble paying their rent, or if they receive any legal notice from their landlord, including evictions,” said Deborah Thorpe, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project (NHLP).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a wide-ranging order against evictions nationwide on Sept. 4. That order, which is in effect until the end of the year, includes fines of up to $250,000 and a year in jail for individual landlords and fines of up to $500,000 for organizations who evict tenants that qualify for protection.
To be eligible under the CDC order, tenants must be experiencing “substantial loss of household income.” But unlike the CTRA, the federal law doesn’t require the loss of income to be related to COVID-19, and the tenant can provide their landlord with a hardship declaration anytime and still be protected.
The CDC order also set relatively high income limits for tenants. An individual can earn up to $99,000 a year and married couples can earn twice that and still qualify for eviction protection from the federal government.
Despite the protections local laws ostensibly offered tenants who couldn’t pay rent this spring and summer, a South Bay legal aid group says it has noticed an “increased volume of illegal evictions,” in which landlords are aggressively forcing tenants out of their homes without taking them to court.
“The tactics that landlords are using in executing those illegal lockouts have been really troubling,” Trujillo told San José Spotlight.
The housing attorney said he’s heard from tenants whose landlords have changed the locks, shut off utilities, removed tenants’ property from their homes and worse.
“I talked to a tenant recently whose landlord had just removed the front door and the tenant had no way to secure their property,” Trujillo said.
And it’s not just in Silicon Valley. Housing attorneys across California and around the country are hearing from tenants whose landlords are using similar tactics.
The NHLP recently took a survey of legal aid housing attorneys and found that nine out of 10 reported illegal evictions happening where they work.
“It’s a huge problem across the country,” said NHLP Deputy Director Thorpe.
But Gonzalez, the landlord, says those kinds of evictions were already against the law. And the new eviction moratoriums won’t stop that behavior by bad landlords — it only hurts landlord-tenants relationships between good landlords and renters.
“We already have policies and laws in place to take care of illegal evictions,” he said. “Another layer of restriction makes it almost impossible for us to manage our properties. It is confusing to tenants and that makes our relationships really challenging.”