California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order on Friday placing what was described as a moratorium on evictions, but advocates say it does not actually provide sufficient protections for tenants. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/POOL/TNS)

Confusion swirls over uneven eviction protections as rent collection begins

Housing advocates warn some type of rental assistance or forgiveness will be necessary

As the first rent payments come due following the announcement of a shelter-in-place order, eviction “moratoriums” at the state and local level have caused as much confusion as relief for struggling renters.

California joined San Francisco on Friday in saying it would not enforce eviction orders during the shelter-in-place, but both policies stop short of preventing a wave of evictions once they are lifted, advocates warn. Further, tenants may not be aware of the steps they must take to take advantage of the protections.

Mayor London Breed issued two executive orders earlier this month that, coupled with new San Francisco Superior Court operations, prevent both evictions from coronavirus-related loss of income and no-fault evictions during the emergency. But tenants must notify the landlord within 30 days of the rent’s due date that they are unable to pay due to coronavirus financial impacts, and provide documentation within seven days of that notification, attaching a form from the San Francisco Rent Board.

“Tenant counseling organizations in San Francisco have been receiving calls from tenants who are scared and confused,” Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, said in a statement. “So many have lost their jobs, or have suffered severe cutbacks. They have either never heard of the mayor’s order, or they heard something about it and have no idea what it means. Does it apply to them? Will they still have to pay the rent later?”

Adding to the confusion statewide is an executive order issued Friday by Gov. Gavin Newsom that implies a similar moratorium through May 31 but provides a lower level of protection. Legal analysis by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Disability Rights California found the order merely extends the deadline to respond to an eviction summons from five days to 60 days if based on nonpayment, and if the tenant notified the landlord in writing within seven days of rent being due, with documentation.

Enforcement of evictions through May 31 also only applies to tenants who are aware of the new procedures and complied with them. Other types of evictions, like those under the Ellis Act or capital improvements, are not included.

Several tenant and housing advocacy groups like the Eviction Defense Collaborative and Council of Community Housing Organizations argue that the state order doesn’t go far enough. It prevents evictions from being enforced but allows filings over nonpayment, owner move-ins and other no-fault evictions to proceed, only delaying the process to immediately after the height of the crisis.

“San Francisco is unsurprisingly taking the strongest position,” said Peter Cohen, co-director of Council of Community Housing Organizations. “What we need is an across-the-board certainty for all Californians that they won’t be evicted for this health and economic crisis. Stopping evictions entirely is for our collective interest when we should all be focused on sheltering in place, social distancing and not taking risks for survival.”

Before the eviction order, Newsom announced last week that several banks throughout the state would offer a 90-day grace period on mortgage payments for owners financially impacted by coronavirus, with no fees or damage to credit, and a 60-day moratorium on foreclosure sales or evictions. Like the eviction moratoriums, property owners must follow an outlined process with documentation to obtain mortgage relief under these orders.

Some are calling instead for the forgiveness or outright cancellation of rent and mortgage payments during the coronavirus lockdown while some tenants engage in a rent strike. Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney and Dean Preston introduced a resolution last week backing calls for the state and federal government to cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis, rather than put people in debt during a subsequent economic downturn. Ronen cited the $1.5 trillion loaned from the Federal Reserve to banks in an attempt to stabilize the markets in early March.

“There are thousands of workers that are sitting in their homes that have been laid off that have no idea how they’re going to have enough money for food and medications and no idea how to pay their rent,” Ronen said before the introduction last week. “Without [both moratoriums], we cannot prevent mass displacement, mass evictions and mass chaos when we get ahold of COVID-19 and stop the spread.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, agrees the state order doesn’t go far enough and is open to rent or mortgage forgiveness but without a uniform way to legislate both, he feels a holistic approach is needed.

He and Assemblymember Phil Ting co-authored Assembly Bill 828 which prohibits evictions and foreclosures during the state of emergency plus 15 days afterward, and for courts to set up a repayment plan. Rent would be reduced by a quarter of the regular cost with a twelfth of back rent tacked on over the next year before being restored to the full cost if economic hardship is proven, Wiener said.

“Regardless of how we do it, it is absolutely essential that we avoid renters from being immediately liable for multiple months of back rent,” Wiener said. “That doesn’t work and will result in mass evictions.”

With the California Legislature session scheduled to resume April 13, as of now, AB 828 won’t be passed before renters and owners navigate housing payments. But the state of emergency lends the ability to fast-track urgent measures that may also be immediately enacted, Wiener said.

But it’s not just renters with sudden coronavirus-related impacts that worry tenant policy experts like Cary Gold, director of litigation and policy at Eviction Defense Collaborative. Tenants may already be on a payment plan or rental assistance from previous hardship that they may no longer be able to afford during the emergency. Nor is the bleak economic outlook an assurance that they will be able to right after it’s lifted.

“It’s concerning,” said Gold, who successfully ran for Superior Court judge in March, of the lack of statewide protections. “We will have a massive wave of evictions unless the governor creates something to give rent forgiveness.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the resolution for a rent and mortgage moratorium, which is also co-sponsored by Supervisor Shamann Walton, at its virtual Tuesday meeting.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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