Anti-eviction signs decorate the Rodney Drive apartments in Los Feliz. (Christina House/Tribune News Service)

Anti-eviction signs decorate the Rodney Drive apartments in Los Feliz. (Christina House/Tribune News Service)

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs bill to extend COVID-19 eviction protections through June

Patrick McGreevy

Los Angeles Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed an emergency bill that will extend through June eviction protections for Californians suffering financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic, acting just days before an earlier moratorium was set to expire.

Newsom’s action on the legislation followed the measure’s approval Thursday by the state Legislature and was aimed at heading off what many state officials warned would be mass evictions and a surge in homelessness as Californians struggle with lost income during the pandemic.

The measure prevents landlords from evicting tenants who pay at least 25% of their rent through June and attest that they face financial hardship because of COVID-19 and its effect on the economy. The bill also provides $2.6 billion in federal funds for rent subsidies that will help pay most past-due rent by low-income tenants dating back to last April.

“The issue of evictions, the issue of this moment, the economic anxiety that so many people are struggling and suffering through, is the issue, and we have not lost sight of that,” Newsom said during a livestreamed bill-signing ceremony, adding that the law he signed is “protecting millions and millions of people, tenants as well as landlords, and addressing their anxiety head-on.”

Newsom was joined online by legislators including Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).

Moreno Valley tenant Graciela Alvarado, 45, emotionally described how her family of five came down with COVID-19 in September.

“We passed through this thing. Then when we are done we tried to go back to [our] job: no job,” she said. “Now with this news, I get so excited, I get so happy, and I want to say thank you because this one is helping my family to keep going.”

The bill extends protections approved last summer that were set to expire Sunday.

Applications for the new rent relief program will be available on the state’s Housing Is Key website, and the state expects to begin accepting them in March, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

Some lawmakers had called earlier this month for the protections to be extended through the rest of this year, but the bill approved Thursday was the product of negotiations with interest groups and takes into consideration landlord concerns that properties could go into foreclosure if rent is withheld that long.

State Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), who had proposed more extensive tenant protections last year, said she supports the compromise worked out with the governor.

“I believe it reflects a broad range of interests and protects vulnerable tenants from eviction and gets cash into the hands of small mom-and-pop landlords who have been struggling without their rental income,” Caballero said.

The coronavirus, which has killed more than 39,000 Californians, has also wreaked havoc on the state’s economy as stay-at-home orders issued by health officials last March resulted in millions of workers losing jobs or income, putting many at risk of eviction.

During the floor debate before Thursday’s vote, Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) cited analysis by UCLA researchers indicating that in states where eviction moratoriums lapsed, there were 433,000 additional COVID-19 cases, including nearly 11,000 deaths

“At this deadliest of moments in the pandemic we can’t have tenants pushed out onto the streets or into overcrowded settings,” Chiu told his fellow lawmakers.

About 90,000 California households are behind on their rent by a collective total of $400 million, according to an estimate last week by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, although other estimates have been much higher.

Under the new bill and the measure approved last year, tenants cannot be evicted as long as they pay 25% of their rent. The measure was submitted as a budget bill, which allowed it to be approved with a majority vote. A regular bill requires a two-thirds vote to take effect immediately.

Under the bill, tenants can qualify for the protections if they pay 25% of their rent each month or in a lump-sum payment by June 30, and attest that they face a financial hardship because of the pandemic.

Unpaid rent converts to debt that landlords can pursue through the courts, but it can’t be used to seek an eviction.

By tapping $2.6 billion approved by Congress during the Trump administration, the Legislature is offering a rent subsidy that will pay landlords 80% of the total amount of rent in arrears between April 2020 and March 2021 as long as landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20% and not pursue evictions.

In cases in which landlords do not agree to forgive unpaid rent, the state would pay 25% of the rent in arrears.

The bill passed the Senate without any opposition votes. The Assembly approved the measure on a 71-1 vote, with Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) casting the lone vote in opposition. Kiley said he believes a better solution would be to reopen the economy and allow people to get back to work, and to fix problems with the state’s unemployment benefits system that have deprived jobless Californians of financial help.

“This measure is an excuse for neglecting those staggering problems,” Kiley told his colleagues. “I am not going to enable that neglect by voting for it.”

But Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen (R-Huntington Beach) and other Republicans voted for the bill, saying it will help landlords who own just one or two units whose income they depend on to make ends meet.

“They too have suffered,” she said. “They have gone a year now without any income. They also are trying to put food on the table for their families.”

Providing financial help to rental property owners was a key request of landlord groups.

“Getting dollars to landlords is imperative,” said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the California Apartment Assn., which represents rental housing owners. “Many landlords have not received rent in over a year and some owners are on the brink of losing their homes.”

During the floor debate, some lawmakers told stories of constituents at risk of eviction.

Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) said one resident of his district, a single mother of three children, had been out of work for eight months and was five months behind on her rent.

“If it wasn’t for this eviction moratorium, her family would be forced onto the streets,” Gipson said.

In the end, several Democratic lawmakers voted for the bill even though they said it does not go far enough to protect renters.

Newly elected Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose) cast a “yes” vote but noted that if landlords decide not to accept the relief, tenants get less help and are at risk of eviction.

“I understand the motivation is to incentivize landlords to opt in to the relief fund, but it is incumbent on us to do more to protect tenants,” Lee said during the floor debate.

Some tenant advocates also said the legislation is inadequate, leaving many people at risk of eviction and burdensome housing debt because landlord participation in waiving past-due rent is voluntary.

“It’s good that small landlords and nonprofit housing providers will get help staying afloat, but we must further protect tenants with rent debt forgiveness — and from corporate landlords, speculators and others just trying to get tenants out,” said Lupe Arreola, executive director of the advocacy group Tenants Together.

Arreola’s group is part of a coalition of tenant advocacy organizations that said they were left out of the negotiations with the governor.

“Without tenants’ meaningful participation in these discussions, we will continue to see pandemic evictions rubber-stamped by our courts, and tenant attorneys will have to fight not only landlords, but the deeply misleading public message that tenants are protected,” said Stephano Medina, staff attorney at the Eviction Defense Network.

“Tenant groups are frustrated and rightly so,” Lee said. “They did not have ample opportunity to provide input.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Bay Area NewsCaliforniaHousing and HomelessnessPolitics

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