Santa Clara County and several local cities passed emergency laws temporarily banning evictions last week, all of which are about to be put to the test.
With April 1 approaching and thousands of families already reporting being unable to pay the rent due to the coronavirus, tenants and landlords alike are scrambling to navigate the new laws. How long is it in effect? How much time do renters have to report that they can't pay? And when is the money finally due?
The rules are in many cases different from one city to the next. The upshot is that families who have lost income because of the coronavirus — either the illness itself or income lost due to the shelter order by public health officials — can stay in their homes and not be subject to an eviction for failing to pay rent for several months. The county's eviction moratorium lasts through May 31, and gives renters a 120-day grace period after that to come up with the back rent.
The protections, which extend to commercial renters, mean tenants have a reprieve on March, April and May rents until late September, giving them time to return to work and earn money to pay off the delayed costs. Nothing in recent eviction protections imposed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the county, Palo Alto or Mountain View waives unpaid rent, meaning it must be paid back after the health crisis is over.
In Palo Alto, the City Council on March 23 passed a moratorium on residential evictions that will remain in effect until the city's state of emergency expires. After that point, tenants would have 120 days to pay the full amount of the back rent.
In Mountain View, tenants will have seven days to inform landlords that they can't pay rent, and an additional seven days after that to provide documents proving that the coronavirus and its myriad impacts on the local economy has resulted in a "substantial" loss of income. Even if a landlord were to attempt to evict a tenant, it wouldn't go far: County courts announced Friday that they would not process any legal paperwork or hold court proceedings that would result in a residential or commercial eviction.
The county ordinance is purposefully vague about what constitutes a substantial loss, but indicates that proving any of the following should be enough:
• Job loss.
• Reduction in work hours.
• A store or business closure.
• Missing work to care for homebound school-age kids.
• Caring for a family member infected with COVID-19.
An impending disaster
Last week, the nonprofit Destination: Home announced an $11 million fund to keep families housed and financially stable after losing income due to the coronavirus. It took two weeks to collect, drawing on the support of public agencies and private companies.
Within just a couple of hours of launching the relief program, there was a crush of 1,400 applications. Sacred Heart Community Services, the nonprofit spearheading the effort, had its website crash almost immediately and its voicemail system completely overloaded with requests. In three days, that pool of applications grew to 4,000, more than exhausting the fund.
Destination: Home CEO Jennifer Loving told the Voice that the eviction moratorium is important and staves off an immediate surge of evictions and people on the street. But she worries that a staggering number of lower-income families — already barely scraping by — are suddenly unable to pay for rent, health care and other essential costs. Absent enough financial assistance, she believes the county is on course for "financial calamity."
She acknowledged that the initial $11 million wasn't nearly enough, but that the nonprofit didn't want to wait for more philanthropic donations to start disbursing the funding. People need the help right now, she said, pointing out that a family that came to Sacred Heart on Friday seeking assistance had just $3 in their bank account.
Looking back on her 25-year career assisting those in poverty, Loving said the coronavirus poses an unprecedented challenge. The people who need help number in at least the tens of thousands, many of them workers in the gig economy, retail and food services who simply don't have the option to work from home.
"The scale and the enormity of the need is deeply concerning to me," she said. "I think that we have a looming financial catastrophe, and we are on the edge of just starting to understand what that is going to mean for the vulnerable families who live here."
Destination: Home is already working on ways to raise money and inject more funding into the now-depleted assistance program, including corporate donors and private, individual donations on its website. Meanwhile, local jurisdictions including Mountain View are launching their own relief programs for city residents.
The good news is that the eviction moratorium gives nonprofits and public agencies more time to assist families in need, but there is still a sense of urgency. A family making only $25,000 a year isn't going to be able to recover when unpaid rent piles up as high as $6,000 or $8,000, she said.
"Let's not let people get three months in arrears, because that is going to be insurmountable for many people," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.