California Weighs Extending Eviction Protections Past June
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For the third time during the pandemic, California legislators have pushed off a huge, looming decision until the last minute: Will the state shield tenants from eviction?
The answer, most likely, is yes, but for how long and under what terms is still up in the air. Several lawmakers told CalMatters a decision could come late this week â only days before current protections are set to expire after June 30.
California has $5.2 billion to pay off people’s rent, money from multiple aid packages approved by Congress. That appears to be more than enough to cover all of the unpaid rent in the state, according to Jason Elliott, senior counselor to Newsom on housing and homelessness.
But the state has been slow to distribute that money, and it’s unlikely it can spend it all by June 30. A report from the California Department Housing and Community Development showed that of the $490 million in requests for rental assistance through May 31, just $32 million has been paid. That doesn’t include the 12 cities and 10 counties that run their own rental assistance programs.
âItâs challenging to set up a new, big program overnight,â said Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco and chair of the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, helped craft the original eviction moratorium last year. âIt has been challenging to educate millions of struggling tenants and landlords on what the law is.â
Key legislators are concerned about ending eviction protections before the bulk of those dollars have entered the pockets of the Californians who need it most, so theyâre mostly hammering out new rules on eligibility and applications to make sure more rent relief gets out faster.
âIt doesnât make sense to allow evictions when there are still billions of dollars available that could prevent those very evictions,â Chiu said.
But the deal-making to extend the eviction moratorium has been slow and secretive. Tenant and landlord groups told CalMatters they have been shut out of negotiations, which are taking place between Assembly and Senate leaders and the governorâs office âÂ similar to the last two rounds of negotiations.
âPolicymakers have been pulled in many directions, but Iâm hopeful that the right conversations are happening, and weâre going to make progress before June 30,â Chiu said.
A deal could be unveiled as soon as today. Lawmakers will have to wait 72 hours from the time they get a bill on paper before taking a vote and getting something to the governor, which means Thursday is the earliest an extension could be finalized.
Here are some key decision points that will determine the fate of scores of California renters:
How Long Would New Protections Last?
That question is at the heart of the debate. Tenant advocates want to extend protections for as long as possible, while landlord groups want the opposite.
Brian Augusta, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the tenant side has asked the state to tie the end date to distribution of all available rental relief funds â which at the current pace would take several months, at least.
âIn my mind, it would be a travesty to end these eviction protections before we get every dollar out the door,â Augusta said.
Landlord advocates are concerned about the same issue, but want protections to end by September.
âWeâd rather not have an extension at all, but we need to get the money out,â said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of theÂ California Apartment Association. âThatâs our number one focus. If that means a short, short-term extension, so be it. But the focus has to be on getting the money out.â
Another point of contention: The association wants the law to protect from eviction only those who have applied and are eligible for funds, while tenant advocates want blanket protections that also cover those who have struggled to learn about and apply for the program.
Augusta, on the tenantsâ side, is fearful that sunsetting the protections while the Legislature is out of session âÂ between Sept. 10 and Jan. 3Â â would mean no one will be around to reassess and fix the rent relief program.
Tenant advocates are also pushing is to link protections to an improved economy with lower unemployment.
âThe concept is:Â Do people have their jobs back? Because if people donât have their jobs back, theyâre not going to be able to pay rent,â said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for Tenants Together, a statewide advocacy coalition. âItâs not rocket science.â
While the state has now reopened and life for many in California is returning to normal, many employees in lower-wage sectors are still out of work. Last month, CalMatters reported California still has the nationâs second-highest unemployment rate and has regained only 48% of jobs lost during the pandemic.
âWhile the economy is coming back, there are still millions of struggling families, and we need to make sure that theyâre not going to be evicted while thereâs still money available to help them,â Chiu said.
How Much Rent Relief Would Be Covered?
The most recent round of rent relief allowed landlords to collect aid totalingÂ 80% of unpaid rent through March 2021, as long as they forgave the rest. If a landlord turned down that deal, the tenant could receive 25% of the rent owed and have the rest of the debt relegated to small claims court.
Tenants have argued that the formula gave them the short end of the stick, should landlords choose to turn down the money. The 25% payment guaranteed only that a renter wouldnât be evicted, but could still be saddled with debt.
In his May budget proposal, which legislators are now hashing out, Newsom called for state dollars to cover the full amount of missed rent â a proposal both tenant and landlord groups have welcomed.
Newsom also suggested that money could go directly to tenants â as opposed to waiting until landlords accept the aid. Thatâs something the landlord groups are less than thrilled about.
âWe think there will be huge abuse,â said Carlton.
But Chiu said the money could only be used to pay rental debt: âThe two implications from that are: The landlord would not have to forgive any of that debt, and the tenant would receive coverage for everything that they owe.â
Under the current protections, tenants who have moved out to save on rent are ineligible for relief, as it was designed only to keep current tenants housed. Advocates are hopeful that will change in the new bill.
Another gaping gray area is whether renters who took out loans from friends, banks, or payday lenders, and therefore don’t have a direct debt to their landlords, can still qualify for the money.
Why Has it Taken So Long to Distribute Rental Assistance?
The existing moratorium laid out several ways the money would reach residents: The state would distribute it; cities or counties could do it themselves using the stateâs rules; or the jurisdiction could distribute its share of federal dollars with its own rules, and let the state distribute the rest.
An analysis by PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research group, suggests that about 758,000 households in California are behind on rent and owe a total of $3.5 billion. A newly released survey by the Terner Center at UC Berkeley â of 8,605 families renting from one of the stateâs biggest nonprofit affordable housing developers â found that the number of tenants who couldnât pay rent more than doubled during the pandemic, with Black and single-parent households hit hardest.
So why the disconnect between the need and the response? A recent surveyÂ of 177 tenant advocatesÂ found several culprits: trouble applying in languages other than English and Spanish, a lack of digital proficiency, and difficulty gathering documentation to prove eligibility for the relief.
The stateÂ pledged this month to address those issues, with eased documentation requirements and expanded language availability for the relief application.
Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the state’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, said the daily average of people applying for rent relief skyrocketed by 70% the week of June 11, when his agency simplified the application.
âSo itâs working,â he said.
But Singh identified another reason for the slow rollout: âA lot of the burden of the outreach basically is on structurally underfunded and understaffed community organizations, and so a lot of people just donât knowâ that rent relief is available.
In cities that handled their own rent relief funds, including San Francisco, programs got underwayÂ less than a month ago, most because many were working out who would be eligible for the limited funds.
Riverside County also came up with its own rules, but earlier in the process, and decided tenants and landlords would get 100% of the rent owed â a move some lawmakers are hoping to replicate at the statewide level.
The county has sent more than $21 million to about 2,600 households, according to Mike Walsh, deputy director of the Riverside County Housing Authority, where applications exceed available dollars. He has a different ask for the Legislature: âCan you just please make this simple?â
Walsh said that heâs heard that landlordsâ attorneys were not thrilled with the stateâs 80% deal, so it took effort to get the word out that his county’s program was different. But as soon as the county runs out of funds, the state is supposed to step in with its own program. Walsh hopes for some streamlining to avoid the confusion of separate rent relief efforts with changing rules.
Why Are Evictions Still Happening?
Tenant advocates say the current eviction protections arenât really a moratorium because evictions have been ongoing. Singh, from Tenants Together, said her organization has been flooded with more calls this year than at any other time in the organizationâs 13-year history. It brought on two more staff members just to handle them.
The groupâs staffers, volunteers and lawyersÂ say they have seen an uptick in informal evictions brought on by landlord harassment and legal cases over nuisances and renovations. Thatâs because the law only prevented landlords from kicking out tenants over missed rent.
âThere should be additional protections to protect tenants from eviction, period, because we know that thereâs lots and lots of other ways that people can be forced out,â Singh said.
For weeks, her organization has heard of pre-emptive threats of eviction: âCome July 1, youâre gone,â she said tenants have reported their landlords telling them.
She hopes the Legislature will change that.
This post includes additional reporting from the Associated Press.
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