Jean Kendrick, 70, and her son Stanley, 42, at an Extended Stay America in Richmond on Dec. 22, 2020. They moved into the motel after being evicted from their duplex earlier in the month. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Jean Kendrick stood in the rain outside the duplex she had shared with her disabled son as movers wheeled boxes filled with their belongings onto a truck headed for storage.
“It was like a nightmare,” Kendrick said. “I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone.”
It was the second week of December. Kendrick, 70, and her 42-year-old son, Stanley Jackson III, were being evicted from their home in Richmond, even as a deadly surge in coronavirus cases was sweeping through the Bay Area and the country.
“In the middle of a pandemic, on a rainy Sunday morning, we wind up having to move,” Kendrick said.
They are now spending nearly $900 a week for a room at a nearby Extended Stay America hotel, and Kendrick says she has already depleted most of her savings: “And we don’t know where we’re going to go when we run out of money.”
Kendrick and her son are among at least 527 individuals and families in the Bay Area who were evicted between the start of the statewide coronavirus lockdown, on March 19, and the end of December. That’s according to data from sheriffs' offices in the Bay Area’s nine counties, collected by KQED and CalMatters through public records requests.
Those 527 evictions, however, represent only a fraction of the total number of people who were forced from their homes during that period. Tenants' attorneys say many tenants leave or get locked out before sheriffs get involved. But the data does provide insight into who is most vulnerable to evictions and where those evictions are happening.
The most evictions in the Bay Area during that time period — roughly half the total — were in Santa Clara County, with 145, and Contra Costa County, with 135. The largest clusters were in San Jose and Antioch.
Contra Costa County, where Kendrick lives, also had one of the highest rates of evictions — 100 per 100,000 renter households — according to an analysis of the data by the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley, in partnership with KQED.
That’s a stark contrast to some nearby counties: In San Francisco, sheriff's deputies carried out only 17 evictions during those nine and a half months. And in Alameda County, only eight were carried out, the lowest in the region. Tenants' advocates attribute the low numbers to the tenant protections those counties put in place during the pandemic, which are among the strongest in the state.
”The low level of evictions in San Francisco and Oakland, for example, is encouraging that these interventions actually work,” said Tim Thomas, research director for the Urban Displacement Project.
The data also points to ongoing racial disparities in evictions. Thomas and his colleagues estimate that Black renters, like Kendrick, were more than twice as likely to be evicted, as compared to white renters.
He said the findings were in keeping with earlier research in Seattle and Baltimore that showed higher rates of eviction for Black households.
“Evictions really are a civil rights issue,” he said. “It seems to fall on the backs of Black households more than any other group.”
The following map was produced by Alex Ramiller and Tim Thomas of UC Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project, based on their analysis of eviction data collected by KQED and CalMatters.
The analysis also shows that evictions have been happening in neighborhoods that are home to some of California’s most vulnerable renters. Those neighborhoods have higher poverty rates and higher levels of rent burden — meaning renters pay more than a third of their income toward rent — compared to neighborhoods where there were no evictions.
Renters, many of whom were already struggling to afford the Bay Area’s high housing costs, have also been particularly hard hit by job losses from the pandemic, because they tend to work in industries that have been shut down.
Loopholes in the Law
Even as evictions have continued, tenants' attorneys across the Bay Area say rates have been well below what they normally see.
That’s because the state has had some form of eviction protection in place since April, and some cities and counties have added stronger rules.
The Judicial Council, which oversees California courts, put a stop to most eviction cases between April and August. The state Legislature then passed Assembly Bill 3088, which prevents people from being evicted for non-payment of rent, at least until the end of January. Lawmakers on Monday introduced new legislation, Senate Bill 91, to extend the moratorium through the end of June.
Under both pieces of legislation, tenants have to demonstrate that they’ve lost income due to the pandemic and must continue to pay at least 25% of their rent.
Pre-pandemic eviction numbers are not widely available, but in Contra Costa County, for example, the Sheriff’s Office reported enforcing roughly 30 evictions per week in the 18 months prior to the pandemic, as compared to an average of three per week, between March 19 and the end of December.
But many landlords argue that even in a pandemic, they still need the option to evict.
Jenny Zhao owns three properties in San Jose and says she doesn’t want to evict any of her tenants. But her husband recently lost his job, and she doesn’t know how long she can keep paying the mortgage on one of her properties, where her tenants are already three months behind on rent.
“If I don’t pay, I will lose my house,” Zhao said. “Whether I sell or foreclose, that means the tenant will eventually lose their home anyway, and then where do they go?”
Tenants' advocates, however, argue that nobody should be evicted while the state continues to restrict various business operations and activities, because displacement can threaten not only the health of individuals being evicted, but the entire community.
Research has long shown that evictions lead to higher rates of physical and mental health problems.
But during a global pandemic, they can also be deadly. A November study by UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, that’s still awaiting peer review, linked the lifting of eviction moratoriums in 27 states to 433,000 new COVID-19 cases and 11,000 deaths. The researchers attributed those cases to an increased spread of the virus, as a result of people searching for new housing, doubling up with friends or family, or becoming homeless.
“Housing is one of the most fundamental things to stay healthy and stay alive,” said Kathryn Leifheit, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA and lead researcher on the report.
And that’s why advocates in many counties are arguing for even stronger eviction protections.
“The moratoriums were good, but they haven’t gone far enough,” said Nadia Aziz, a housing attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, a legal services nonprofit. “There are loopholes.”
Landlords in many counties can still evict tenants for a number of reasons, including things like owing back rent from before the pandemic started, submitting late paperwork declaring income loss or for minor breaches of the lease.
The data from sheriffs' offices showing 527 lockouts in the Bay Area didn’t include reasons for the evictions and may include cases involving a health and safety threat.
Aziz said nuisance claims made up a small portion of all evictions prior to the pandemic, but have become more common, in part because it’s one of the few ways property managers can now remove tenants.
“It’s things that are on the margins or could be something that the tenant has always done, but the landlord never really enforced it,” she said.
With the exception of San Francisco and Alameda counties, eviction moratoriums also don’t cover renters who were issued eviction notices prior to the pandemic and were waiting on a court date or for sheriff’s deputies to lock them out. That includes families like Jean Kendrick and her son.
She received her first eviction notice in November 2019, after her son got into an argument with the property manager. Their case was delayed during the start of the lockdown, but resumed when courts started reopening. She got her final eviction notice last month.
The two are surviving off of Social Security and disability checks, but fear they could soon end up living on the streets.
“I’m worried about that all the time,” said Kendrick, who has diabetes and hypertension — two underlying health conditions that put her at higher risk if she were to contract COVID-19.
She also needs a CPAP machine to help her breathe because of sleep apnea. And her son requires daily access to reliable electricity to charge his wheelchair.
“If we live on the street,” she said, “we're dead.”
Gaps in Protection
The varying strengths of local eviction moratoriums are one of the main reasons for the wide disparities in evictions across counties.
“It really is what your county stepped up and did,” said Anne Tamiko Omura, executive director of the Eviction Defense Center, which offers legal services to tenants in Alameda and parts of Contra Costa counties.
As compared to the strict moratoriums in Alameda County and San Francisco, rules in counties like Contra Costa are more narrowly focused on protecting renters who have fallen behind on paying rent during the pandemic and can prove a financial loss because of it.
Alameda and San Francisco also have well-established tenants' rights organizations that provide free legal support, including a right to counsel in San Francisco.
In November, Contra Costa County supervisors voted to approve spending federal funding on emergency rental assistance, including $600,000 for tenant counseling and legal aid.
“We still need to do better,” said Diane Burgis, a Contra Costa County supervisor whose district includes Brentwood, Oakley and parts of Antioch, where evictions rates are comparatively high.
Burgis said it can be difficult to reach people who are vulnerable to eviction, because the East Contra Costa area has fewer nonprofit outreach services than other parts of the Bay Area. Households who are low-income or are non-English speakers can be particularly vulnerable, she added.
“There’s probably some landlords that are taking advantage of certain ways to evict people who don’t have the resources or the understanding, or feel confident that they can get the help or know where to look,” Burgis said.
Even as moratoriums have protected many from eviction, there is mounting concern about the debt that has been building up, and the impact on both renters and landlords.
SB 91 — the bill to extend California’s eviction moratorium until the end of June — also calls for the distribution of $2.6 billion in federal relief funding for rental assistance. Landlords could receive 80% of the back rent owed by low-income renters, but only if they agree to permanently forgive the remaining amount, and not pursue eviction.
That has some tenants' advocates worried that many people will be left out.
"The fact that landlords get to choose, and then if they decide not to do it, tenants are basically on the hook,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, a tenants' attorney and member of the Berkeley Rent Board.
The rent relief would be a big help for small landlords like Jenny Zhao and her tenants, who have lost work and owe her thousands of dollars in back rent.
She hopes that the process to apply for rent forgiveness is simple enough for landlords and tenants to navigate.
“It needs to be easy,” Zhao said. “Some of my tenants don’t speak good English and probably won’t have the ability to complete it.”
If lawmakers approve the plan, the governor’s office hopes to begin distributing the aid by March.
But the debt relief won’t help renters like Jean Kendrick, who have already been evicted. While staying in the hotel with her son, she has been searching for another, more affordable housing option.
So far, she hasn’t had any luck.
KQED's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report