Fired, Pregnant, Now Facing Eviction: Some Bay Area Landlords Attempt to Defy Moratoriums

When Krystal McMorris was fired from her job as the on-site property manager at Playa del Alameda Apartments, she lost her job and her housing. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A large picture of the Golden Gate Bridge hangs above the couch in Krystal McMorris’ living room, a nod to her hometown of San Francisco. Her walls are decorated with family photos of her fiance and his 13-year-old son.

“We've made this a home,” McMorris, 29, said of their two-bedroom apartment in Alameda.

A third room serves as McMorris’ office, where she works as the on-site property manager for the complex Playa Del Alameda Apartments. As part of her employment package, she lives there rent free. In exchange, she collects rent and handles any resident concerns.

“Because it's a small site, I pretty much did everything,” McMorris said.

But all of that changed when she received notice that the company she had worked with for six years was laying her off. The notice was dated March 19, two days after Bay Area counties began rolling out shelter-in-place orders.

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“I was pretty shocked. It was a slap in the face, just being with a company for so long,” McMorris said.

The company also told her she had 30 days to move out. And she became afraid of having to look for a place, as fears of the coronavirus were ramping up. As California’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, McMorris was among millions of Californians who lost their jobs, with many unable to pay rent, as non-essential businesses were forced to close.

“It was the end of March, right when everyone realized this is serious,” she said. “All this stuff is happening. I thought the least they could do is give me a little time to transition.”

McMorris wrote a personal plea to the company, FPI Management, a real-estate corporation with a portfolio of over 100,000 units nationwide. She told them she was 10 weeks pregnant with her first child and wanted more time to safely find housing after the COVID-19 health emergency had passed. She worried she would be putting herself, and her unborn child, at risk by attending open houses and interacting with strangers in the middle of a pandemic.

“I was afraid of what would happen to my family,” she said. “Just in the midst of us being uprooted so drastically, like there's no way we could have known this was coming at any point.”

But FPI Management refused to budge.

In an email reply, her manager said the company could have kicked her out after three days because her housing was tied to her job, which she no longer had. They went on to threaten her with legal action.

While the courts are closed out of concern for public safety during the coronavirus pandemic, landlords are still starting the eviction process and threatening to remove tenants, according to housing rights advocates in the Bay Area. It’s unclear how many renters are facing eviction threats, but some attorneys say they’re getting concerned calls from tenants every day.

“I would say this is the most egregious for sure, but there's definitely eviction activity going on, despite everything that's happening right now,” said Anne Tamiko Omura, executive director of the Eviction Defense Center, an Oakland-based tenant rights group representing McMorris.

Omura said landlords don’t have the legal right to enforce an eviction until the state’s moratorium is lifted, likely months from now. But that hasn’t stopped companies like FPI Management from trying.

McMorris’ case even prompted the Alameda City Attorney’s Office to get involved. After several conversations with FPI, the city issued a press statement that said, despite an unusual rent arrangement, McMorris is still protected under the local and state eviction moratoriums. “We managed to get them to understand the laws and that this person can’t be evicted in this moment,” City Attorney Yibin Shen said.

Omura said McMorris, like other renters who are unable to pay, might be able to stay put for now. But the eviction moratoriums don’t prevent landlords from demanding back rent once those protections are lifted. Omura said that renters should be in line for some aid.

“Corporations are getting bailouts. Small businesses are getting bailouts. But tenants are still expected to make good on their financial obligations down to the penny,” Omura said. “Nobody’s waiving a dime for them.”

In fact, FPI Management emailed McMorris saying they could charge her $3,030 a month in rent if she sticks around.

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FPI Management Chief Operating Officer David Divine said in an emailed statement to KQED, “FPI is compassionate to Ms. McMorris’ situation,” and has not forced her to pay April rent. “FPI’s actions have been and shall remain consistent with all applicable laws, orders and eviction moratoriums in effect."

Back at her apartment, McMorris has started packing her belongings. Her walls are now bare, except for a black-and-white ultrasound photo from her first doctor’s appointment. Despite the stress of an uncertain living arrangement, McMorris remains determined to fight.

“With this I have to fight. I have a baby on the way. It’s not just me anymore. It's not just my fiance and my step child. It’s a whole new baby that I'm 100% responsible for,” McMorris said. “I have to speak up and speak for what's right, or me and my family will be homeless.”

For now, she’s still looking for a new job and affordable housing — two things that seem insurmountable when she, like everyone in the Bay Area, is still sheltering in place.