Santa Clara County COVID spike, rent evictions equal double whammy
Resident Manuel Ojeda (left) lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his wife came to the city's eviction help center in East San Jose to apply for rent relief. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

As COVID-19 infections spiked across Silicon Valley over the winter, evictions continued to pile up in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The combination is posing challenges for in-person court hearings.

There were 234 residential evictions filed in Santa Clara County from December through Jan. 26, as well as 40 commercial evictions. Tenant defense attorneys say the number of cases appearing on the docket each week has more or less reached pre-pandemic levels.

The situation became exasperated when the court was closed to the public for most of January, but it remained open for litigants, including people facing evictions.

“We had someone contact us and tell us they were COVID positive, had a hearing the next day and didn’t want to go to court,” Karen Kontz, an attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight. “Frankly, people are just showing up—either people who have COVID, think they are exposed, or worried about COVID—because they don’t have any options.”

Omicron-related infections are dropping from their peak last month, but some advocates are still concerned the court’s limited options for remote hearings pose a health risk to litigants.

Santa Clara County is seeing a decline in COVID cases, but numbers are still high compared to last year. The seven-day rolling average of new cases is 2,473, compared to the average of 192 cases recorded on Dec. 1.

Court spokesperson Benjamin Rada told San José Spotlight the court allows remote appearances for some hearings, but must continue to hold eviction cases in person, aside from non-evidentiary hearings that can be conducted over the court’s phone system.

“First, roughly 80% of tenant-litigants are self-represented, presenting challenging issues related to access to the internet and digital technology,” Rada said. “Although remote technology is increasingly available to the general public, many litigants continue to lack access and remain at a disadvantage.”

Eviction cases move quickly and require the exchange of proposed exhibits with evidence and testimony from witnesses, which can be difficult to coordinate over remote platforms such as Zoom, Rada said. The court is developing an eviction diversion program that will potentially reduce the need for people to attend court, but it’s unclear when that program will start.

More evictions on the way?

Advocates predict more tenants will end up in court this spring thanks to the impending expiration of state protections for renters. Since the end of the eviction moratorium in October, tenants who demonstrated they applied for rent relief could not be evicted for COVID-related rent debt, although that hasn’t stopped some landlords from using intimidation tactics to remove tenants. Starting April 1, landlords can file eviction cases against tenants for any rent they owe for future months.

“We are demanding the governor and state legislative leadership take action and own this issue,” Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for advocacy group Tenants Together, told San José Spotlight. “They could modify protections so anybody who was eligible for rent relief can’t be evicted over that debt during COVID in perpetuity—they have a lot of options.”

The state has not signaled whether it intends to extend post-moratorium protections. As of Feb. 1, 14,437 San Jose households have applied for rent relief totaling more than $197 million. Less than one-third of applicants—4,318 households—have received funds. Approximately 22,210 households in Santa Clara County have applied for relief, and 6,663 have received aid totaling almost $85 million.

Emily Hislop, a San Jose housing policy and planning administrator who manages the city’s eviction prevention help centers, told San José Spotlight tenants can still apply for rent relief after March 31, and the federal government is allocating tens of millions of dollars to the state to fund rental assistance.

She said about 1,200 people have contacted the center for help with rent relief applications. About 60% of those people are extremely low income. That means they make 30% or below the area median income. For a San Jose household of four, that is $47,350.

“These are the people who were stretched thin, and any little kink to their income stream puts them in danger,” Hislop said. “These are the people most at risk of eviction.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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