The evictions moratorium in Santa Clara County appears to be keeping people in their homes through the month of April, with few — if any — reports of attempts to oust residents behind on rent because of the new coronavirus.
While the emergency measure appears to have staved off the immediate threat of displacement, local nonprofit workers and landlord-tenant mediation staff say a bigger problem is on the horizon. Mounting job losses and dwindling business activity are already putting an extraordinary number of families behind on bills, and financial aid funds are being exhausted as requests pour in.
"We had an entire crew from a restaurant come in because they all got laid off," said Marie Bernard, executive director of Sunnyvale Community Services. "House cleaners, cafeteria workers, janitors, any business that closed down — those individuals are coming to us right now."
A recent survey conducted by the real estate tracking website Apartment List found that 1 in 4 of the respondents paid part or none of their rent or mortgage for housing. People making less than $50,000 a year were more likely to have paid partial or no rent for April, as were young adults ages 18 to 29.
When asked how long they could pay for housing under a full loss of income, 79% of renters said they could afford their housing costs for one month.
An even larger set of data collected by the National Multifamily Housing Council found grimmer results showing that 31% of tenants did not pay their April rent.
Local renters may be even harder hit. Six Bay Area counties were among the first in the country to adopt strict public health measures to close schools and halt nonessential businesses from operating starting on March 17, adding economic pressure and job losses weeks before April rent was due.
Bernard, who oversees safety net services in Sunnyvale, said the need for services has more than quadrupled in the last month, and her nonprofit's last food distribution line stretched half a mile. About one-third of those people have never been served by Sunnyvale Community Services, she said.
"We're at over 400 requests for financial assistance in the past two to three weeks, which is an amazing number," she said. "This has just been a tsunami of outpouring of need."
The eviction moratorium, passed by Santa Clara County and later supplemented by several local measures, blocks landlords from kicking renters out because of nonpayment of rent, provided that tenants can prove they're behind on payments due to the coronavirus. Nonprofit leaders see this as an essential stopgap measure to deliver financial aid to a backlog of needy residents.
For Bernard, the worry is that landlords may not have gotten the message, and that some tenants have been getting eviction notices. It's one thing to have an ordinance immediately safeguarding renters from eviction during the crisis, but it's another thing to let everyone know and enforce those protections.
"That needs to be communicated to landlords and renters and there needs to be information on what are the alternatives," she said.
Nonprofit leaders throughout the county say the moratorium buys them time to take in requests for financial assistance and written out checks to households who have lost income because of the coronavirus, but doing so has been a challenge. Scaling up isn't easy, and the demand is unprecedented.
Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency (CSA) in Mountain View, said the nonprofit has been handling well over 1,300 requests just in the Mountain View area alone, 500 of which have at least received a reply. From there, 200 have been "actively engaged" for an application. As of Thursday, Myers said the nonprofit has cut 120 rental assistance checks averaging about $1,800 to $1,900 per household.
It's tough making it through the backlog, but at least there isn't an immediate rush, he said.
"That moratorium on evictions was by far one of the best things to help us out," Myers said. "If all of those people in our rental assistance queue needed to pay rent on April 1, and we didn't even get the money until March 26, that would've been a disaster."
In normal times, CSA would provide between 20 and 25 rental assistance checks per month. Bringing down the queue has meant committing as many CSA staff members as possible to rental assistance as well as hiring temporary staff through outside funding.
For some, the question is really whether they can stay in the Bay Area once this is all over.
"We don't know how long the moratorium is going to last, the shelter-in-place order and how long businesses are going to be closed," said Emily Hislop, the helpline manager for Mountain View's rent control program. "There are people who realize that they may have to move — their rents were pretty high to begin with."
Tenants are responsible for notifying landlords that they cannot pay the full rent due to the coronavirus, and must show documents proving that the virus and health orders have led to a loss in income. The amount of time tenants have to prove loss of work or income varies from one city to another.
Providing proof isn't always easy, Hislop said. Housekeepers who provide services but aren't formally employed may not have a paper trail, nor will someone who supplements their regular pay by driving for Uber. If a restaurant is closed, that can make it difficult for workers to get a letter from their employer.
Hislop said she is encouraging people who call to take a more nontraditional route if necessary, like signing a declaration explaining their situation under penalty of perjury, which should be enough.
"The test of whether that's valid is in front of a judge and a lot has to happen before that, and that's not happening for months," she said. County courts have temporarily shut down nonessential functions, including eviction proceedings.
Under the county ordinance, tenants are by no means off the hook for paying landlords. Once the moratorium expires, tenants will have 120 days to pay the full balance of back rent. Renters are encouraged to communicate with their landlord and come up with a payment plan quickly, including making partial payments so landlords still have some income.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.