Newsom's Eviction Moratorium 'Useless, Misleading' Tenants Groups Say

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the state Department of Public Health on February 27, 2020 in Sacramento. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tenants rights groups and some lawmakers are blasting a new executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that purports to suspend evictions statewide, calling it useless and misleading.

Newsom announced the moratorium on Friday, saying it would provide relief to tenants who have been laid off, furloughed or seen their hours slashed while the state grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Today we just established a new overlay for the state of California that denies the capacity for enforcement and court proceedings for any eviction through May 31,” Newsom said Friday. “So for tenants, through May 31, there will be no eviction proceedings, there will be no enforcement as it relates to inability to pay for COVID-19.”

But eviction defense attorneys say it doesn’t do any of those things. Brian Augusta, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, says it instead creates chaos in the courts and causes unnecessary confusion for workers who've been asked to stay at home.

More than 1 million new unemployment claims were filed in California between March 13 and March 25, Newsom said Wednesday.

“It doesn’t do anything,” Augusta said. “I’m really disappointed in the scope of this order.”

Although it’s being billed as a moratorium on evictions, the order only delays a tenant's legal window for responding in court – allowing them 60 days to respond, rather than five days – when a landlord files an eviction. It doesn’t stop new evictions from being filed.

And the extended time is only allowed if certain conditions apply.

Tenants must provide documentation proving they were unable to pay rent because they’ve contracted COVID-19 or were caring for someone who has, have lost wages due to the statewide shelter-in-place order or had to miss work to care for a child who is no longer in school or daycare. Evictions unrelated to COVID-19, such as owner-move-in under the Ellis Act or for any breach of the lease unrelated to rent payments, would still be allowed.

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Jackie Zaneri, an attorney with the Oakland-based nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza called the order “entirely useless” for tenants and tenant advocates.

“This is going to mislead people,” Zaneri said. “People are going to think that they are protected when they are not.”

She added, “No one is protected by this.”

Even if a tenant does provide the required documentation, they still have to go to court to prove they meet the conditions, said Silvana Naguib, a supervising staff attorney with the Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm, Public Counsel.

“Otherwise, how is the court going to determine you meet that criteria?” she said. “You have to show that you notified your landlord, that you provided documentation.”

If the tenant doesn’t show up in court, the judge must issue a default order, which means the landlord can move forward with the eviction. When that happens, a notice is sent to the sheriff’s department, telling the sheriff to enforce the eviction.

The governor’s order says sheriff’s departments shouldn’t evict anyone protected from the order, but again, Naguib says it places the burden on the sheriff to determine who meets the criteria for protection and who doesn’t.

Naguib says even if the tenant is able to repay the rent on April 15, for example, rather than April 1 when it was due, he or she can still be evicted.

“Any failure to timely pay rent is still grounds for an eviction” she said. “So nothing in this order prevents them from being evicted come June 1.”

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Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom's office, defended the governor's order, saying it would immediately provide relief to renters in cities and counties around the state where local leaders have not implemented their own moratoriums.

"These protections provide a strong, statewide foundation that cities can build upon," he said.

Friday’s order won’t override any measures that cities or counties have already enacted or could enact in the future that offer tenants more protections from evictions. Since the coronavirus outbreak, some 30 jurisdictions have enacted moratoriums on evictions, including in Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco.

But the moratoriums vary in what they cover and who is protected – creating a patchwork approach that tenants organizations had hoped to eliminate with a single, statewide policy. Other states, including Washington, Maryland and New York, have passed bans on residential evictions and foreclosures.

On Wednesday, a coalition of 38 lawmakers sent a letter to Newsom urging him to issue a prohibition on all evictions, unless the tenant poses a serious threat to health or safety.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said Friday that the governor’s order fell short of their request, adding that it will likely lead to a wave of evictions immediately after the emergency ends.

“Millions of Californians are struggling during the greatest economic dislocation in nearly a century,” Wiener said in a statement. “They deserve a complete moratorium on evictions during this emergency, so that they can focus on health and health only.”

Kim Burrafato, 67, is a barista at the popular Caffe Trieste in San Francisco’s North Beach. He shares a $2,300-per-month apartment with three roommates but hasn’t been paid since the cafe closed on March 16. They were able to scrape together enough money to pay April's rent, but he's worried that if he doesn't go back to work soon, it may be a different story come May.

He tried to file for unemployment, but the system crashed, he said.

"We knew it was coming, and it was very depressing," Burrafato said. "I'm just holding on here."