The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday, March 24, to halt evictions that would displace families and businesses as a direct result of the novel coronavirus, which has ravaged the local economy in a matter of weeks.
The moratorium on evictions, which takes effect immediately and lasts through the end of May, applies to both residential and commercial renters who can prove they've had a substantial loss of income as a result of the coronavirus. All cities within the county are included in the evictions ban.
"Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, and that's what a moratorium is," said County Supervisor Joe Simitian at the board's teleconference meeting.
The moratorium is meant to mitigate the economic damage caused by efforts to contain the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, namely, public health officials' order to temporarily shut down schools and all nonessential businesses, resulting in high unemployment and lost wages.
Home evictions would worsen the health crisis by increasing the county's already significant homeless problem, according to county officials, and the depressed local economy would be exacerbated if a high number of commercial renters are ousted due to failure to pay rent during the temporary shutdown.
In order to stave off an eviction under the county ordinance, tenants have to show proof of a "substantial" loss in income — which will be determined on a case-by-case basis — including job loss, reduction in work hours, a business closure or a significant decrease in business income caused by a reduction in open hours or consumer demand. Large medical expenses for immediate family members can also be used to justify nonpayment of rent. Once the moratorium is over, tenants have 120 days to pay all the rent that's due.
"It is important to note that nothing in this urgency ordinance relieves a tenant of the obligation to pay rent or restricts a landlord's ability to recover rent due," according to a county staff report. "The measure does, however, prevent evictions from occurring in the midst of this crisis."
Some residents say the moratorium doesn't go far enough and simply kicks the can down the road, with an inevitable wave of evictions likely once the 120-day grace period expires. Palo Alto resident Kevin Ma told supervisors in an email that the moratorium must be coupled with greater access to renter aid, or else the ordinance would only be a quick Band-Aid fix to the problem.
"We don't know how long the situation would last, and we see, based on the housing crisis, that many were living already close to the edge anyway," Ma said. "It'll be very hard for some to make up for lost time."
Palo Alto resident Angie Evans urged supervisors to give renters as much flexibility as possible, granting them "minimal" requirements to prove economic hardship. Income verification alone does not take into account the high cost of child care, health services and other expenses that vulnerable families have to budget for each month.
Cities, counties and private companies have rallied this week to raise funds for Santa Clara County residents out of work due to the coronavirus, announcing on Monday more than $11 million in financial support for the homeless and the unemployed. Cities including Mountain View have also launched their own renter relief programs aimed at keeping people housed during the disruption.
Even before the Bay Area's regionwide shelter in place order on March 17 had shut down nonessential business, many storefronts on the Peninsula reported major losses and dwindling foot traffic. While some restaurants remain open for take-out orders — they are considered essential and permitted to stay open — others have temporarily shuttered.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 16 clearing the way for California cities and counties to enact eviction moratoriums, suspending state laws that would have pre-empted or restricted such ordinances in the past. Some Bay Area cities moved quickly to enact a temporary ban on evictions, including Palo Alto, while others were less eager to pass renter protections.
The county's moratorium does not supersede stronger renter protections imposed by individual cities. Emily Hislop of Project Sentinel, who works with Mountain View landlords and tenants, said the county should urge cities to consider mediation programs to help renters manage months of unpaid rent.
"Stopping the evictions is one thing, but we would like to encourage jurisdictions to look at dispute resolution programs to negotiate repayment or even reduced rent," Hislop said. "Everything is not going to magically be better after 120 days."
Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said she supported the moratorium, but worried that having all unpaid rent due right after 120 days of the moratorium ending would be "catastrophic." She wondered whether the county could pass some kind of ordinance that could allow renters to pay for past rent over the course of a year.
But going above and beyond what Gov. Newsom prescribed in his executive order last week may be difficult for Santa Clara County to implement without running afoul with state laws. County Counsel James Williams said that his office would look at the available legal options in the event that supervisors want to supplement the moratorium with additional protections in the coming months.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman said he doesn't think it will be a huge problem, and that tenants can and likely will be able to pay back portions of unpaid rent during the roughly four-month grace period between the end of the ordinance and when unpaid rent is due.
Any landlord who attempts to carry out an eviction in violation of the county's ban faces civil fines and penalties. Landlords are also barred from imposing late fees for unpaid rent if the tenant endured economic hardship caused by the virus.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.