By Dean Preston
For nearly 20 years, I fought to keep people in their homes as a tenant rights attorney. Now, as a San Francisco supervisor during a global pandemic, I’m deeply concerned that the COVID-19 crisis may lead to evictions at a level we haven’t seen in generations.
San Francisco leaders came together to adopt a strong eviction moratorium that protects tenants from evictions during the pandemic. The Mayor and I collaborated to draft the protections, and they were approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors. The Sheriff and Superior Court also announced they were suspending evictions. Our City should be proud of taking the lead in making sure that our public health crisis has not become a displacement catastrophe. At least, so far.
All of these protections are temporary. We need to consider what happens when they expire.
San Francisco’s working class, disproportionately renters, could soon face a nightmare scenario. Absent legislative change, when the protections of the current eviction moratorium expire, landlords will be free to serve “pay or quit” notices on tenants for the back rent. If tenants cannot pay in three days, they will lose their homes. What would follow, as the New York Times recently predicted, is an “avalanche of evictions,” unprecedented in scale and irreparable in its harm.
We are not going to let that happen. I have proposed a new law that would provide permanent eviction protections for people who have lost income due to COVID-19 and can’t make rent. If passed, it would protect the most vulnerable tenants, and make sure they never have to worry about being evicted for not being able to pay the back rent that became due during this pandemic.
This change would make San Francisco among the most forward-thinking cities in terms of protecting vulnerable tenants. But we would not be alone: In March, the Oakland City Council passed a similar ordinance, which would likewise ban nonpayment evictions for COVID-related rent debt, thanks to the leadership of Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas.
Our version of these permanent eviction protections would create a new legal defense against nonpayment eviction, as long as a tenant can show they experienced income loss or substantial expenses due to COVID-19. In addition, the legislation prohibits late fees, penalties, interest, or other charges to tenants related to delayed rent.
It is important to note what the legislation does not do. It does not waive a tenants’ obligation to pay the rent owed or cancel the rent debt; instead, it simply takes eviction out of the equation. The obligation would become akin to consumer debt, which a landlord could elect to pursue in any manner they see fit. A tenant with the means to pay would have every reason to follow through on their contractual obligation, in the same way they would have every reason to pay their monthly credit card bill, or student loan payment.
As has become abundantly clear, the worst health effects of COVID-19 have disproportionately fallen on low-income people and communities of color. If the law remains as is, the San Franciscans who will soon be kicked out of their homes will no doubt be from those communities, and we must do everything in our power to offer them the fullest protection available by law.
Some have claimed that if we take eviction off the table, tenants will simply stop paying their rent. We point to evidence to the contrary: a survey by the San Francisco Apartment Association found that 96.8% of residential tenants paid their rent in May, despite not having the threat of eviction to compel them. It turns out the sky isn’t falling for landlords — most are getting their rent. And for those small property owners with tenants who cannot pay back rent, we are introducing legislation this week to create a Rent Resolution and Relief Fund that would provide grants to assist them.
The post-COVID period will in all likelihood entail a series of negotiations between landlords and their tenants on how to account for back rent. In most cases, we expect that both parties will arrive at an agreement that provides payment over time. This law won’t stop those operating in good faith from finding a solution. It is meant for those who would prey upon the most vulnerable by serving an eviction notice for missed rent as soon as they are legally able to.
If you can’t make rent because of a global pandemic — something unpredictable and over which you had no control — you should never have to worry about being penalized with late fees or eviction. Whatever one believes about the best way to resolve rent debt, we should all be able to come together around the premise that people should not lose their homes because of COVID-19.
Supervisor Dean Preston represents District 5 in San Francisco.