California Courts Halt Plan to Lift Eviction Moratorium in August

Houses in Mountain View, pictured on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Tenant groups and advocates are breathing a sigh of relief after the Judicial Council of California postponed a vote this week to remove emergency protections for renters and homeowners who have fallen behind on payments during the pandemic.

The council, which oversees policy decisions in the state’s courts, first voted to halt new evictions and foreclosure filings on April 6, as courts were closing due to the coronavirus.

“I’m so relieved,” said Michelle Pariset, a policy advocate with Public Advocates. “Advocates, assembly members, senators and all kinds of people have been talking to the Judicial Council … encouraging them to not change the rules right now, because we aren’t ready.”

On Monday, the council floated the idea of ending the protections on August 3, but reversed course after consulting with Gov. Gavin Newsom, lawmakers and residents, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Wednesday in a statement. Initially, the protections were set to expire 90 days after the governor lifted the state of emergency in California.

“We are at a point with the pandemic with no guidance in history, law, or precedent,” she said. “The rules we promulgated are temporary measures designed to protect the health and safety of the public while ensuring that access to justice remains available.”

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Rental housing providers were disappointed with the decision to extend the order, which they called overly broad.

“Obviously, we were looking forward to a decision today so that rental housing providers could have some certainty about when court actions would resume,” said Tom Bannon, the California Apartment Association’s chief executive officer. “Until the courts reopen, rental property owners are without the legal tools necessary to preserve the peaceful, quiet enjoyment of their rental communities.”

Cantil-Sakauye said the council would work with the governor and Legislature on an updated time frame for when the emergency protections would sunset.

“I believe the executive and legislative branches will need more time to sort through various policy proposals,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

On Wednesday, Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill to codify protections for renters into state law,  in an effort to prevent millions of Californians who have lost income from getting kicked out of their homes.

“We cannot allow a wave of mass evictions,” Chiu said. “That would have catastrophic consequences for California.”

AB 1436 would bar landlords from evicting tenants for up to 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted, and would prohibit landlords from using nonpayment of rent during the pandemic as grounds for an eviction in the future. It would also give tenants 15 months to pay back rent from that time period, after which landlords could claim any unpaid rent in civil court. However, tenants would still have to keep up with current rent after the state of emergency is lifted, or face possible eviction.

Brian Augusta with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation was among several tenant advocates who praised the proposal.

“This is an unprecedented crisis and we need an unprecedented solution,” Augusta said.

Local governments — including San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland — have passed policies that freeze evictions and protect renters, but those are likely to expire in the coming months. And Newsom’s order halting eviction enforcement is set to expire at the end of July.

Meanwhile, tenant attorneys are seeing a high demand for legal services, as the pandemic and its financial impacts drag on. The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley has fielded some 1,400 inquiries from renters, according to Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney with the group. Problems include landlords who have locked tenants out of their homes without filing an eviction lawsuit, or demanding tenants use unemployment assistance and stimulus checks to pay rent.

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“There’s still the issue of unpayable rent debt,” Trujillo said. “There's a clear need for something to be done about that rent debt.”

That’s where some renter and landlord groups agree. The California Rental Housing Association has been urging cities and counties to use some of the money from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion stimulus bill Congress passed in March, to assist tenants in paying the rent.

A statewide rent relief fund would help both renters and landlords, said Jack Schwartz, Jr., a board member for the association. Many landlords depend on the rental income to pay for insurance, property taxes, upkeep and mortgages, he said.

“Until there is something at the state level that addresses the economic needs of housing providers, as well as renters, we’ll be in a world of hurt,” Schwartz said. “Everyone will be in a world of hurt."