East Palo Alto's City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to extend the city's moratorium on residential evictions to Sept. 30, a month longer than the San Mateo County moratorium.
The moratorium protects renters from being evicted if they cannot pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it halts no-fault evictions unless the health and safety of the tenant or landlord are in jeopardy. When the moratorium ends, tenants have up to 180 days to repay owed rent.
The council also voted to change the city's ordinance to extend automatically in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom's March 16 Executive Order N-28-20, which initially authorized cities and counties to establish eviction moratorium through May 31. He has extended the order to Sept. 30, giving local bodies authority to do the same.
"We hope to convey to all the families and all the people who rent that we are concerned about their long-term stability as far as having a place to live," said Councilmember Ruben Abrica. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Abrica said, "It's going to make it harder still for people to go back to work or recover their hours that they had lost. That's creating a lot of stress and anxiety (that is_ affecting people a lot."
As a city where the majority of residents are renters, East Palo Alto has long fought displacement through tenant protections and strong rent stabilization laws. Only 38.3 percent of housing units in town were owner-occupied for the period 2014-2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
East Palo Alto's workforce has been hit hard by the pandemic, with a 12.1 percent unemployment rate in June, compared with a yearly average of 2.4 percent in 2019, according to California's Employment Development Department.
More than half of tenants who responded to a survey in April by the city's Rent Stabilization Board reported that they had lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of 224 tenants who responded, 29 percent said they could not pay their April rent in full.
Maureen Larsson, a longtime resident and a member of the Rent Stabilization Board, said that renters are at risk for homelessness.
"I know that based on some of the people I know who have had to seek assistance," Larsson said. "They don't have family members to turn to. They don't have property that they can sell. Some of those folks are documented, some of them are undocumented."
The council's decision on Tuesday came just hours after San Mateo County's Board of Supervisors extended the countywide moratorium to Aug. 31 amid pressure from local officials and advocates to extend it even further.
"It isn't fair for tenants to wait days before the end of the month to know if rent will be due or not," said Nazanin Salehi, a housing attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA). Salehi spoke during the county board meeting and later at East Palo Alto's council meeting when she encouraged the council to extend the moratorium.
The burden of paperwork remains. To receive protection under the moratorium, tenants must write to landlords explaining that they cannot pay rent due to the pandemic.
Ofelia Bello, executive director of advocacy group Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), said that while they support the moratorium extension, providing documentation puts workers at risk when they help renters make copies and scan documents.
Representatives from YUCA and CLESPA also requested that the city extend the rent repayment period to a year and disconnect the rent from eviction so tenants have more time to recover financially without losing housing.
Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones directed city staff to explore allowing landlords to recover unpaid rent through civil action, rather than an unlawful detainer lawsuit, so tenants would still be responsible for rent but would be able to stay in their homes. She hopes to find a solution that rids tenants of debt while supporting small landlords, though that assistance may have to come from the state or federal government.