Santa Clara County renters, landlords prepare for life after eviction ban
Fred Tran (right) works the housing department's eviction help center booth at a community outreach event in Bellevue Park in August. File photo by Annalise Freimarck.

    As the state ban on evictions draws to a close, tenants, landlords and elected officials in Santa Clara County are bracing for an uncertain future.

    The eviction moratorium, which protects tenants from being kicked out for not paying rent, ends on Thursday. Starting Friday, tenants have to pay at least 25% of their owed rent from the past year and can apply for rental assistance from the state to avoid eviction. Recent data suggests thousands of tenants across the county still haven’t applied for assistance, which indicates many could be at risk of losing their homes.

    San Jose officials—anticipating a wave of eviction litigation—want to create a program to give low-income renters free access to attorneys to help with their cases. A memo discussed at the San Jose City Council meeting on Tuesday estimated there were 2,600 eviction cases per year in Santa Clara County before the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenants failed to respond to the lawsuits in about 40% of cases, meaning landlords won by default. Providing tenants with access to legal help could potentially prevent more default evictions in the future, the memo suggests.

    But it’s not immediately clear how landlords are going to respond to the lifting of the state ban.

    Limited options

    Jeff Zell, a landlord and property manager of multiple properties around the South Bay that house approximately 6,000 to 7,000 residents, told San José Spotlight he has no plans to evict tenants in October.

    He predicts his firm, Zell Associates, will start doing a handful of evictions per month in November focused on people who haven’t filed for assistance or paid rent. By Nov. 1, landlords will be able to take tenants to small claims court to recover past rent, but Zell said he doesn’t plan on doing that.

    “If the tenants don’t have money, there’s no way to recover money,” Zell said.

    Zell’s firm is trying to obtain rental assistance from the state, but some of his tenants are failing to complete applications which slows down the process. Zell said his business is owed about $1.3 million in unpaid rent, and he estimates at least half of that is from tenants who have failed to complete their applications.

    “We literally hit them with customized notices that we post on the doors, we go with emails, with texts, we go and knock on the doors,” Zell said. “It’s amazing and appalling at the same time, the level of indifference and apathy to completing the application.”

    After everything he’s encountered, Zell said his company screens tenants more carefully than before the moratorium. If a prospective renter has suboptimal credit and no proof of income, they won’t be accepted, he said.

    A rough road for tenants

    Housing attorney Tom Skinner told San José Spotlight one consequence of the moratorium is that it’s become more difficult for some renters to find housing.

    “It’s already very difficult for low-income tenants to find housing because a lot of housing providers are requesting letters of recommendation, and that can be very difficult for tenants to get,” Skinner said.

    This problem is exacerbated for non-English speaking residents who may struggle to fill out rent relief applications. Even though the applications are provided in a variety of languages, residents may be unclear about their rights and landlords still can try to illegally evict tenants for nonpayment.

    In an effort to mitigate the problem, San Jose and Santa Clara County have boosted outreach efforts about the rent relief program over the last few weeks—with some success. More than 7,700 households have applied for rent relief in Santa Clara County, and 3,153 have received assistance.

    But even renters who have received help are anxious about whether they’ll be able to keep their homes. Some are concerned about landlords not consistently engaging with the rental assistance program or threatening to raise rents in the future.

    ‘People cannot afford this’

    Vy Nguyen, a Milpitas resident, told San José Spotlight she managed to get rent relief to cover a couple months of back rent. But the state cut off her unemployment payments in early September, depriving her of any income. Nguyen said her landlord has previously threatened to raise the rent on the condo she’s lived in for 17 years, which is stressing her out.

    “It’s very, very bad,” Nguyen said. “My health, it’s so bad. I get nervous… and I got heart problems too.”

    Nguyen hopes to get rental assistance to cover the next few months. But it’s been difficult to get her landlord to engage in the process. She believes the rental market is so expensive people can’t afford to continue living in Santa Clara County.

    “It’s so hard,” Nguyen said. “It’s too expensive in the state right now—people cannot afford this.”

    Mike Krantz, a San Jose resident who lives in a low-income building for seniors, said he’s appalled that the eviction moratorium wasn’t continued in Santa Clara County. He noted his living situation is relatively secure, but his building’s rent is pegged to the area median income, which is more than $120,000. Krantz said rent is protected, but new tenants are subject to rents that are unaffordable, which puts them in a precarious situation.

    The end of the moratorium is going to result in “thousands of people on the street,” he told San José Spotlight.

    Some landlords have worked things out with their tenants to avoid litigation and the rental assistance program altogether.

    Gustavo Gonzalez, past president of the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, said he owns a small apartment building. He told San José Spotlight some of his tenants left at the beginning of the pandemic after they couldn’t pay rent, although he said they could’ve stayed and worked out a payment plan. He estimates about 5% of his current tenants are behind on rent, and some of them have been denied financial assistance from the state for failing to meet various criteria.

    “We’ll keep rolling up our sleeves and do what we can, we’ll get a payment plan, apply for programs and see if one comes through,” Gonzalez said.

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

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