Statewide Eviction Protections Approved by State Lawmakers, but Tenant Groups Still Fear Eviction Wave

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, (right) authored a state bill that would ban evictions for missing rent across California. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Lawmakers voted to approve statewide eviction protections Monday night, barring landlords from evicting tenants if they miss paying rent because of the pandemic.

Millions of Calfornia tenants who have faced pandemic-related hardship may be protected by this bill.

The vote came right under the wire, as Monday was the last day for the Legislature to approve bills for this year's session.

Later that night, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3088, also known as the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020, into law. The speed of his signature was no surprise — it was not only a bill passed with urgency, but he helped broker the compromise behind it.

How the bill functions, in theory, is straightforward: If a landlord moves to evict a tenant for not paying rent, a tenant can claim they are financially impacted by the pandemic and be shielded from eviction.

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But how the bill functions in practice is complicated, and tenants advocacy groups argue that many more would have been saved from eviction, and from potential homelessness, if the bill's language were streamlined, simpler and stronger.

Surveys, including those conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, have shown Black and Latinx renters overwhelmingly would bear the brunt of evictions.

Many still fear a wave of evictions is imminent.

Even lawmakers voting to approve the tenant relief act publicly said it wouldn't protect enough renters or do enough to relieve small-time property owners facing foreclosure.

"By no stretch of the imagination is the end-all-be-all" solution, said state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, during a floor vote for the bill Monday. But he begrudgingly backed the bill, he said, because "this protects tenants hurt by COVID-19 without writing a blank check."

One of the bill's key authors, Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, responded to those criticisms.

"I will be the first to say this bill is far from perfect," Chiu said in an Assembly housing committee Monday night. He also said many of the tenant protections "I first fought for" in his previous eviction moratorium bill "are not in this bill."

But, he added, "we cannot allow evictions to resume while we are still in the middle of a pandemic."

As KQED previously noted, here are the main provisions of the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020:

  • Full protections: Any rent missed between March 1 and Aug. 31 will be converted to civil debt. This means landlords can take tenants to small claims court for any missed rent — but they can't evict you for not paying it.
  • Protections with a caveat: Rents missed between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31 are a different story, however. Tenants must pay 25% of rent within that period or else they'll be open to eviction. The remaining 75% of their rent is treated as a civil debt, just like the provision for missed rent from between March 1 and Aug. 31.
  • More time: Also under the new law, the usual three-day notice to evict that landlords post – mandatory before they go through the court process to evict a tenant – is now a 15-day-notice.
  • How to file: Once a landlord has posted a 15-day notice, a tenant can file with their landlord that they have a pandemic-related hardship.

While tenants advocates hoped for a true statewide eviction moratorium, what eventually emerged were eviction protections targeted at more narrow situations — chiefly, rent nonpayment.

In an open letter to Newsom, The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a housing advocacy group, argued the tenant relief act should ban all kinds of evictions, forgive unpaid rent for tenants who cannot afford it and should have established a landlord relief fund.

Many of the bill's key concessions came after pressure from the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords. The banking industry also forced the removal of mortgage forbearance provisions, which were at one time included in the bill to help property owners who may be suffering because their renters are falling behind.

During a housing committee hearing of the Assembly, one lawmaker who helped negotiate the tenant relief act, Assemblymember Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, called the bill the "only vehicle" to help renters in the face of its opposition, as imperfect as it is.

"We either have inaction, which means millions of individuals could be left without a home," she said, "or we vote on a measure that requires we continue the dialogue, but does help a portion of those millions of individuals."

Key concessions during negotiations on eviction protections include:

  • Perjury: Under the new version of the bill, tenants must swear under penalty of perjury that they are enduring a pandemic-related hardship. Tenant advocates are worried that may scare off undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable populations from filing for those protections in the first place.
  • Means-testing: If a tenant earns 130% of a county's area median income or higher, a landlord can ask for them to produce proof of a pandemic-related financial hardship, like a layoff or wage-reduction notice from an employer.
  • No more eviction moratoriums: Eviction moratoriums previously passed by cities and counties will be grandfathered in, but they won't be able to pass any extensions specifically for evictions regarding nonpayment of rent. While some of them are stronger than the state's provisions, some are set to expire after 30 days.
  • Courts: Courts will face a tighter time frame, too. They'll have until just Oct. 5 to begin processing evictions for nonpayment of rent in non-COVID-19 cases, though sources familiar with the negotiations suggest courts may find themselves scrambling to ramp up staff in time.
  • Property owners: Mortgage forbearance is now out of the picture. Under pressure from groups representing small property owners, Chiu had amended AB 1436 to allow property owners — even non-landlords — to make late mortgage payments. Under pressure from the banking industry, that's now gone.

The bill's protections largely sunset on Feb. 1. State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, was a key negotiator on the tenant relief act. She also acknowledged the bill's shortcomings Monday, but said a working group of stakeholders will soon meet to study the bill's effects.

The outcome of that group's work could help lawmakers craft stronger tenant and property owner protections when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

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"If we all had a crystal ball we’d look at it and know when the pandemic was going to end," Caballero said. Instead, she said, "after this bill is signed, our work still continues."