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As Bay Area Eviction Moratoriums Expire, Local Lawmakers Scramble

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A protester holds up a sign that says "Stop Evictions, Cancel Rent."
An anti-eviction protester stands in front of Santa Clara County Superior Court on Jan. 27, 2021, during a demonstration calling for stronger statewide eviction protections. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

George Wu is willing to die to end Alameda County’s eviction ban.

The San Leandro property owner launched a hunger strike Sunday to protest the moratorium, which he blames for $120,000 and counting in unpaid rent. Wu plans to camp out in front of the county administration building day and night, through cold and rain, until lawmakers lift the ban.

“I need the rent to feed my family,” said Wu, whose triplex is his primary source of income. “I will continue there until the government listens to my story and until they have a new fair policy.”

While COVID eviction protections are long expired in most cities and counties around the state, Alameda County is one of three Bay Area counties holding out — but not for much longer. The county's local COVID-19 public health emergency expired Tuesday (PDF), the same day as the state's. With it gone, the county's eviction moratorium will sunset in 60 days.

Tenants in Solano County, another Bay Area county with a moratorium in place, will lose their pandemic-era protections in 90 days. And in San Francisco, there’s no end date yet, but advocates speculate that will come in the summer.

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That has lawmakers and advocates in the three counties scrambling to put in place new policies to stem a wave of evictions they fear will follow, while property owners who desperately want out from under the bans are pushing back.

Wu wants Alameda County to fully reimburse landlords for lost rent and end its moratorium immediately. But local officials there have cautioned against an abrupt end to these pandemic-era protections.

“We know there's going to be an eviction tsunami,” said Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Nate Miley, who aims to develop a program to support tenants and landlords coming out of the moratorium. He sees it as causing harm to both landlords and tenants who’ve racked up debt. “I feel the board, because we've put ourselves in this hole, we also have an obligation to help vulnerable populations. We need to figure out how we're going to mitigate the damage that we've caused.”

In Sonoma County, where the local eviction moratorium ended in September of last year, attorney Sunny Noh of Legal Aid of Sonoma County said that surge of evictions never came.

“We expected kind of a tidal wave of cases, and that's not what we saw,” Noh said. Instead, she said they’ve seen a gradual increase, which they expect will ultimately top pre-pandemic eviction numbers.

The moratorium reduced evictions by two-thirds compared to pre-pandemic numbers, said Margaret DeMatteo, housing policy attorney for Legal Aid of Sonoma County.

According to DeMatteo’s analysis of court data, in 2019, there were 932 unlawful detainers in the county. In 2021, the only full year covered by the moratorium, the figure dropped to 332. In 2022, with the moratorium in effect through September, numbers rebounded to 786. The figures don’t account for illegal evictions or notices that lead people to move before an eviction goes to court.

“That's our workforce. Those are vulnerable populations,” she said. “My takeaway is that the county has a lot of power to stabilize the community and improve the ability for our workforce to remain and our seniors and people with disabilities.”

Leaders in Alameda and San Francisco counties are weighing their options to lessen the blow of losing eviction protections for tenants, but it hasn’t come without pushback.

San Leandro City Councilmember Celina Reynes’ recent proposal to extend the city’s eviction moratorium was met with a threat, wishing for her to have a miscarriage and get hit by a car, according to a social media post she shared with KQED. But last week city leaders backed her plan, shielding renters affected by COVID from evictions through February 2024. Tenants must be able to prove that their inability to pay is due to the pandemic to qualify.

“It's a very narrow ordinance, but what it's doing is protecting some of our residents who are most vulnerable to displacement and homelessness,” Reynes said, noting the city doesn’t have rent stabilization or just cause eviction protections in place. “It gives us time to work on more permanent solutions for both tenants and housing providers in our city.”

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San Leandro isn’t the first city to enact tougher renter protections in the wake of temporary COVID measures lapsing. These solutions have proliferated across the state over the past couple of years as cities adopted or strengthened rent control and just cause eviction laws, which limit evictions to those a city deems reasonable, like failure to pay rent, significantly damaging a unit or violating the lease after receiving a written notice to stop. In the Bay Area, Antioch, Richmond and Oakland all increased protections last year.

“People are going back to the toolkit of policies that we've been advocating for years,” said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for Tenants Together.

In San Francisco, where Singh is based, there are already strong rules in place to protect tenants. What she hopes to see before the moratorium lifts is a new infusion of funding for city programs that offer emergency rent relief and provide attorneys for tenants facing eviction. As for a policy solution, advocates in the city say they’re just beginning to think about what a phaseout of the eviction moratorium should look like.

In Berkeley, the city council adopted a proposal to stretch the city’s moratorium for an additional 60 days after the end of the local emergency. The plan would create a transition period through the end of August during which only certain kinds of evictions would be allowed, including some due to an owner moving back into the property, those due to health and safety issues and those for nonpayment, unless a tenant has proof the delay is related to the pandemic.

“We just can't end this right now. We have to have a plan,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, adding that the proposal is meant to prevent people from becoming homeless. “We don't need thousands more people on the streets just because we didn't give them the time and the space and the resources to be able to pay back the rent that they owe.”

He’s also asking for another $300,000 for the city’s COVID rent relief program, which now has a waitlist of six tenants seeking a total of $44,142.86, according to the resolution. He expects demand to grow when the eviction ban lifts.

In Oakland, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas is working on a plan to phase the city’s moratorium out. She said she’s listening to input from both tenants and small property owners as she drafts the proposal.

“I am hopeful that we will craft a proposal that helps provide housing security to tenants and balances the concerns of small property owners,” she said in an email.

As lawmakers consider ways to ease out of the bans, landlords are pushing to take back greater control over their properties.

“These elected officials set these tenants up for failure by allowing them to continue to accumulate debt,” said Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, “but they're never, ever going to be able to pay [it] back.”

The association recently surveyed members and found the average respondent had at least two units with tenants who hadn’t been paying rent for an extended period of time. The amount of debt ranged from $1,000 to north of $80,000, with an average of about $30,000 that wasn’t covered by rent relief funds.

As Gulbransen sees it, the best solution is to require cities to cover any remaining debt through its rent relief program.

“That really is the only thing that's going to keep tenants housed,” she said.

Miley, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors president, has asked county staff to look into resources available to support the transition out of the moratorium.

“We need to come up with programs that are going to help work with landlords and tenants to ameliorate and hopefully bring about some type of compromise,” he said, “so that we don't have the level of evictions that are anticipated.”

While the county may not have the money to make landlords whole, Miley said he’d like to see it cover a portion of the debt.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute, wants local leaders to think bigger. Housing affordability in California was a crisis before the pandemic. And, she said it’s still a crisis for millions of families in the state.

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“The real question is, what do we do for the folks who can't pay for their housing on minimum wage, who can't have three jobs now because there aren't three jobs to have?” she said. “We've now returned to our regularly scheduled housing crisis.”

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