By Grace Hase
Jennifer Dye and her three-year-old daughter had lived in a one-bedroom backyard cottage in Morgan Hill for 10 months when the coronavirus pandemic hit the Bay Area earlier this year. For the last 15 years, the 36-year-old single mom worked as a manager at a local family-owned Chinese restaurant.
But in mid-March, California’s economy came to a screeching halt as state and local health officials issued unprecedented stay-at-home orders in an effort to slow the coronavirus’ spread. All non-essential businesses closed, forcing restaurant owners to furlough workers and operate via takeout or delivery only.
In a matter of weeks, the demand for unemployment benefits in California reached record numbers with the state’s Economic Development Department processing more than 3.5 million unemployment claims in the first month and a half of the pandemic. Dye was one of them.
Since then, the economy has slowly reopened, with the state’s unemployment rate dropping to single digits last month for the first time since March.
But not everyone has been able to go back to work.
The Chinese restaurant where Dye works doesn’t have the space to accommodate outdoor dining and, for the time being, the owners don’t need her help fulfilling to-go orders. With most restaurants operating on similar skeleton crews, she’s been unable to find another job and has spent the last eight months scraping together the money she’s received from unemployment in order to make rent.
But when those benefits ran out, so did her ability to pay her rent. Now, she faces eviction.
“It’s traumatic,” Dye says. “I went from making a decent income and taking care of all my expenses and then some to have a comfortable life on my own without anyone’s help to now being worried I’m going to have to move out of my place.”
Since the start of the pandemic, housing advocates, policy experts and non-profit service providers have been sounding the alarm on what they say will be an unparalleled wave of evictions.
A recent report by bank investment and advisory firm Stout estimated as of Sept. 14, between 23.3 million and 34 million Americans were at risk for eviction. The document was released by the National Council of State Housing Agencies and based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
By January 2021, the report anticipates 8.4 million renter households—20.1 million individual renters—could be evicted once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium expires. When that happens, the estimated accumulated rent shortfall across the country could be as high as $25.1 billion to $34.3 billion.
In Santa Clara County alone, extremely low income households owe an estimated $117 million or more in back rent and utility payments, according to a recent report by San Jose-based Healing Grove Health Center. The community health clinic conducted a phone survey among its patients, who are among the region’s hardest-hit by the pandemic.
In August, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3088—also known as the Covid-19 Tenant Relief Act—into law to protect renters from immediate eviction and prevent small landlords from going into foreclosure. The legislation requires tenants to pay back 25 percent of late rent accumulated between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, 2021 by Feb. 1. After that, the usual eviction rules apply and landlords can file unlawful detainers in court.
Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), one of the co-authors of the law, called it a “compromise piece of legislation,” but added he didn’t think it went far enough to protect renters.
“I don’t necessarily sense that it will be [extended], and that’s the discouraging part because we’re all going to suffer as a community as these evictions start piling up in court,” Kalra said. “It’s going to be disastrous when there’s a flood of evictions come February when we’re still in the midst of a pandemic response. … We’re compounding our economic strain due to the pandemic with the economic pain of evictions for potentially millions of Californians.”
Caryn Hreha, a staff attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, says the number of calls they’ve received for legal assistance for evictions has increased through the pandemic, especially among Latinx renters who made up 52 percent of all calls in the last quarter.
“We’re seeing landlords trying to get around AB 3088,” Hreha said. “Some cases are asking for rent from December 2019 through February, so we’re seeing those cases just now. We’re seeing landlords alleging behavior that kind of just mysteriously arose over the summer that coincides with rent not being paid because of Covid-19. We’re getting calls about lockouts a lot and landlords who are trying to just change the locks.”
While evictions related to non-payment of rent are on hold until February, evictions for other lease violations started up again the first week of September—a provision of AB 3088 backed by landlord groups in Sacramento.
“We applaud the legislature and governor for advancing legislation with protections for tenants truly harmed by Covid, while ensuring that owners can evict nuisance tenants and residents who can afford to pay rent but choose to game the system instead,” California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon said in a statement at the time.
With courts processing other types of evictions once again, Dye fears she and her daughter could be without a place to live in a matter of days as she says her landlord tries to work around the law. Despite being out of a job, Dye says she paid her rent in full through August when the money she received from unemployment ran out.
By the time September rolled around, she had found two local organizations willing to help cover the cost of her rent for the next two months with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. All she needed to do was have her landlord sign off on it.
Her landlord refused.
Without rental assistance, Dye thought the new state law would prevent her from becoming homeless as she cobbled together enough money to pay her landlord 25 percent of September and October’s rent. Instead, she was threatened with eviction.
“She was very unhappy about that,” Dye said of her landlord’s reaction to the partial rent payments. “So, she gave me a 60-day notice to vacate and she said it wasn’t due to the finances, it was due to just cause and [she] made a laundry list of these things that I had done that are false so she could get me out.”
California’s AB 1482, which took effect at the beginning of 2020, restricts a landlord’s ability to evict tenants except in “just cause” situations, such as rent nonpayment, criminal activity or because the owner wants to move in.
The one-bedroom backyard unit Dye has rented out for $1,300 a month for the last year-and-a-half doesn’t have running water. Instead, Dye’s landlord gave her and her daughter access to the main house where they could use the bathroom, shower and laundry machine. But when Dye was unable to pay her rent in full in September, she says her landlord cut off her access to the main house.
“I’ve been using … one of those camping showers outside that you heat up,” Dye said. “Me and my daughter brush our teeth with the hose…Using the laundromat is not a big deal, but just having to relieve yourself or brush your teeth or take a hot shower, especially with it being winter now and it’s cold at night, it’s just miserable.”
With the 60 days come and gone, Dye expects county sheriff’s deputies to lock her out of her home any day now.
“I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
SURGE OF NEED
Over the last nine months, Sacred Heart Community Service Executive Director Poncho Guevara says the San Jose-based nonprofit has experienced a “tremendous surge of human need.”
In the early days of the pandemic, local elected officials, tech companies, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations banded together to launch Silicon Valley Strong, a coronavirus relief fund dedicated to helping low-income residents pay their bills. Within three days, the initial $11 million raised was divvied out.
Guevara says in the first five months of the pandemic, Sacred Heart and its network partners assisted nearly 12,000 households in Santa Clara County. But the calls kept coming in, with a few hundred new households looking for financial assistance each day.
“There are so many different types of stories of what people are trying to make ends meet during this time,” Guevara said. “Even though there have been rules in place … that have actually helped prevent people from being pushed out right away, we’re seeing a lot of families that have been doing everything they can to keep up with rent, in part because they don’t believe that these policies are actually enforceable, that their landlords just won’t find a way to get rid of them.”
He fears for a scale of evictions that California lacks the resources and the infrastructure to handle starting Feb. 1. That would crank up the dial on an already unstable housing crisis across the state.
Todd Rothbard, one of the valley’s leading eviction attorneys with 45 years in the business, disagrees.
Over the years, the seasoned lawyer has represented both tenants and landlords. Due to the ever-changing pandemic rules around evictions, he doubts there will be an eviction wave in early 2021.
“Right now there’s a lot of vacancies out there, and landlords don’t like vacancies,” Rothbard said. “The last thing they want to do is add to those vacancies.”
While advocates and other attorneys—like Hreha at the Law Foundation—have said landlords are trying to find workarounds to AB 3088 by evicting renters for other reasons, Rothbard argues those evictions likely have merit, and that landlords will find a way to evict problem tenants with whatever options are available.
“If you can’t evict for nonpayment of rent, you’re going to try to evict for other reasons,” he said. “It’s sort of the natural way that a property owner is going to proceed if that’s the only avenue open to them.”
Mathew Reed, a policy manager with housing nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home, says it’s been a challenge to communicate the different eviction moratorium rules and protections to tenants.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Newsom left it up to local governments to enact their own eviction restrictions. The San Jose City Council enacted its moratorium first, with other local cities and Santa Clara County following suit.
“It was complicated and that they were overlapping jurisdictional authority just made it harder,” Reed said. “There was a period of time in which people were not able to exercise their rights fully because they didn’t know what they were.”
But even when the rules became more clear, Reed says reaching people was an uphill battle.
“I think it’s always the case that the folks who are most vulnerable, it’s also the most difficult for them to get the information,” he said. “To the extent that we know anything, it’s really the lower wage service workers … [that] are also likely to be the people that had the least access to the support resources and information resources that they need.”
This week, California Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced a new bill that would extend the current eviction protections through Dec. 31, 2021.
“We are again staring down an eviction cliff that could leave millions homeless in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” Chiu said in a prepared statement. “We must keep Californians housed and look towards providing relief to struggling renters and landlords.”
Should Chiu’s bill be successful, renters could avoid eviction by paying 25 percent of rent owed between Sept. 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021. The remaining rent would then be converted to civil debt and landlords could file lawsuits in small claims court to recover what they’re owed starting Jan. 1, 2022.
In the meantime, with Feb. 1 quickly approaching, many housing advocates and progressive lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: the only way to prevent the eviction cliff is to “cancel the rents”—which has become a rallying cry for the tenants-rights movement across the country—by providing tenants with financial assistance.
In April, Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) proposed giving Americans making less than $130,000 a year at least $2,000 a month for a year to help cover expenses, including rent. But Khanna’s bill, along with other rental stimulus efforts, have been unable to make it out of both houses of Congress.
“There’s just been obstinance in the Senate,” Khanna said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). “What I would do is I would have the federal government step in and provide the rent so small business landlords are taken care of and renters are taken care of.”
While the incoming Biden administration would most likely support bolder efforts to assist renters, Khanna says getting a bill to his desk will come down to two Senate runoff races in Georgia, where Democrats have the opportunity to flip the balance of power in the upper chamber.
On a local level, advocates have already tried—and failed—to get elected officials to cancel rent. In April, San Jose council members Raul Peralez and Magdalena Carrasco withdrew a proposal to suspend rent after former City Attorney Rick Doyle said he worried it would violate the U.S. Constitution’s fifth amendment, which prohibits private property from being taken without just compensation.
But Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney at the Law Foundation, argues rent could be canceled under local government’s police powers “as long as there are provisions made to make sure it doesn’t have an adverse impact on landlords.”
Beyond advocating for the federal government to cancel rent and mortgages and enact widespread rental assistance, Trujillo says cities and counties must also ensure financial assistance is accessible.
“I think there’s going to be a role for local governments to address gaps in who can access eviction relief, especially for folks who can’t access relief because of immigration status or because of whatever documentation barriers may exist,” he said. “If a local government is willing to be a leader and to cancel rent, there is a way across the policy that is workable and I think that would create for more to be done at the federal level.”