For more than a year, Santa Clara County residents behind on rent due to COVID-19 have been largely shielded from evictions, thanks to a mix of state and county-level protections that are set to finally expire next week.
And while COVID-19 cases have plummeted and job openings are through the roof, housing advocates say letting the moratorium end now would be a mistake. Too many families are still out of work and overwhelmed by debt from unpaid rent, and California's rent relief program — while well-funded — has been sluggish to get money out to families.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers are again waiting until the last minute to announce whether California's state-level protections will be extended through the summer or expire on June 30. Facing uncertainty, Santa Clara County supervisors on Tuesday approved an eviction moratorium that will expire on Aug. 31, serving as a backup plan in the event the state lets the protections lapse.
What's different from past county ordinances, however, is that this one only affects unincorporated areas, leaving it up to individual cities in the county to take action as well. The result is an unprecedented patchwork of individual eviction moratoriums that are now being considered on a city-by-city basis.
The cities of Mountain View and San Jose on Tuesday approved their own version of the moratorium, extending renter protections through Aug. 31. Both ordinances mirror California's expiring moratorium, SB 91, and would prevent evictions of residents who have lost work or accrued significant medical bills due to COVID-19.
Tenants are not completely off the hook, and are required to pay at least 25% of unpaid rent by the end of August, or could face eviction as of Sept. 1. Landlords can pursue the remaining back rent in small claims court, but cannot use the unpaid money as the basis for an eviction.
Mountain View city officials say the ordinance is needed to give tenants a longer grace period to return to work and to allow state and federal renter relief funds to finally reach families behind on rent.
Though previous countywide eviction protections included cities, the legal justification for superseding local authority is too tenuous today, said county Counsel James Williams. The state of the pandemic and public health emergency is no longer significant enough for the county to impose eviction protections inside cities' jurisdictions, he said.
"The county cannot make the factual findings necessary to step on city councils' authority," he said.
Housing advocates urged county leaders to reconsider, and instead pass a moratorium that applies to all cities through the end of 2021. Angie Evans, executive director of Palo Alto Forward, said renters behind on rent are poised to be evicted as soon as July 1, and that no one benefits from the proposed city-by-city approach.
"Cobbling together renter protections really isn't ideal for renters or landlords," she said.
Some cities, notably Palo Alto, are not pursuing a local eviction moratorium and are banking on state lawmakers coming to an agreement on a statewide extension. But it's difficult to say what progress has been made between Newsom and state Senate and Assembly leaders, and what the exact terms and duration of the extension will be. In a briefing with the Mountain View City Council on June 22, state Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, said he couldn't provide any "concrete" news, other than to say he and his colleagues are working hard to reach a deal.
Becker said the root of the problem is that the vast majority of rent relief provided by the state through SB 91 has not been disbursed, in part because of the cumbersome application process. Efforts are underway to turn the three-hour application into something that can be done in 30 minutes.
Though there is widespread optimism that the statewide eviction moratorium will be extended, there is pressure to let SB 91 expire at the end of June. The California Apartment Association (CAA), the largest landlord lobbying group in the country, has been pressuring lawmakers not to extend the eviction protections, arguing that it harms landlords who have lost income while still paying for expenses.
During a media event Tuesday, CAA Chief Executive Officer Tom Bannon said any extension of the moratorium is the result of a failure by state and local governments to get rent relief funds to tenants, and that it's "unconscionable" that billions of dollars have yet to be disbursed. If SB 91 is extended, he said it should only apply to tenants who can prove they face financial hardships to weed out those who have taken advantage of the halt on evictions.
"Unfortunately thousands of renters are abusing the system," Bannon said. "We're talking about people who have the ability to pay or kept working full time during the pandemic, but quit paying rent because they knew the moratorium would make it difficult to proceed with an eviction. This cannot continue."
A CAA-commissioned study by the firm Beacon Economics found that renters across California and the U.S. have mostly recovered from the pandemic, and that predictions of mass evictions and explosive renter debt are largely overblown. Late rental payments in California dropped from 20.7% in December 2020 to 11.8% last month, and national rental debt — estimated at $6.7 billion — could be easily wiped out by the $46.6 billion in federal funds set aside for rental assistance.
"The economic situation of Californians is nowhere near the dire straits that a lot of headlines would suggest," said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics. "Across the board, things are pretty darn good right now and are going to remain good for the next couple of years."
In the event the state passes an extension on the eviction moratorium, Mountain View's emergency ordinance would be automatically repealed. San Jose's ordinance would stay in effect until state legislation preempts the city's local protections.