Many San Francisco renters are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic and will face even deeper new challenges in the months and years ahead.
Thanks to the leadership of our Governor and Mayor, there is a moratorium in place on evictions for tenants who are unable to pay rent that is set to continue for as long as we are in a state of emergency. But once the emergency order is lifted, unpaid rent will come due whether or not tenants have been able to return to work and have earned enough to pay their back rent.
Recent legislation from Supervisor Dean Preston stopping landlords from evicting tenants for unpaid rent accumulated during the emergency order provides some protection, but it leaves open an extreme loophole: it allows landlords to sue tenants in small claims and Superior courts to collect missed payments. As a result of Supervisor Preston’s legislation, landlords — especially predatory ones — will be able to use the courts to collect back rent and bully tenants out of their rent controlled units. Landlords will be able to garnish wages and send the debt to a collection agency, ruining tenants’ credit, which in turn damages their ability to secure their next place to live and even their next job.
The City cannot allow us to emerge from one crisis only to fall even more deeply into another. Just because someone can’t get evicted doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay rent. The City must engage this issue directly to help tenants who will never make up the income lost to the pandemic. We need straightforward and equitable solutions that we can act on right now.
One solution is to create housing protection subsidies for tenants who can’t pay their back rent accumulated during the emergency order. Another solution that would help tenants immediately is for the City to give interest-free, long term loans to renters to pay back rent. A 10-15 year loan for renters should be manageable, and if it isn’t, we should forgive the loan.
We also need to increase outreach and proactive problem solving for renters. With these new and reallocated funds, the City must call on the eviction defense organizations that the City already funds to help renters negotiate rent payment structures that renters and landlords alike can afford. For example, in 2019, when I was the District 5 supervisor, I funded Open Door Legal to assist District 5 renters, especially those who live in public and affordable housing and are too often neglected by eviction defense organizations. I also funded a housing ombudsman to work with renters and landlords to resolve disputes before an eviction ever happens.
The Board of Supervisors is currently considering a new budget and must make sacrifices and tough decisions to fund these critical programs to help renters. Some of the funding can come from obvious reforms like defunding the police, but our elected leaders will also need to make less popular decisions like shifting funding from other departments and taking out loans with the City’s platinum credit rating. Struggling renters who have lost their jobs to this crisis should not be the ones who bear this burden.
Compare these simple, but creative and immediate solutions to the real estate tax transfer that has been proposed by Dean Preston to pay landlords for back rent. Preston’s proposal would need to be approved by voters in November and funds wouldn’t be available until taxes are paid in the coming years, and payments would go directly to landlords in the future, not tenants today. This simply isn’t realistic for addressing today’s problem. It sounds nice at first, but this ballot measure is too risky of a bet for renters who need help now and can’t wait for the years it will take to collect this tax.
We cannot just pretend we’ve solved the problem when there is a loophole that swallows whole all the good the policy does and sets people up for failure. We have to face this challenge with real solutions now, and we can’t just kick the can down the road. The Board of Supervisors must act to protect renters using the full strength of our City’s financial health with outreach, subsidies, and loans. And we must do it now.
Vallie Brown is a former District 5 supervisor who is currently running for re-election to the seat.