Tenants advocates, landlord groups both say coronavirus eviction ban falls short

In the week after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide ban on evicting tenants unable to pay their rent because of the coronavirus outbreak, complaints surfaced from tenants and landlord advocates alike who say the executive order leaves both unprotected.

Tenants rights advocates complained that while the governor’s order forbids the ouster of renters affected by the pandemic for 60 days, it doesn’t stop landlords from starting the process by filing new eviction cases in court.

During an online news conference on Wednesday, April 1, two state lawmakers and legal aid workers expressed concern there would be a wave of evictions come June because tenants will be unable to pay their back rent as required.

“The last thing we need is a wave of mass evictions during this pandemic or immediately after the state of emergency ends,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D–San Francisco, chair of the Senate Housing Committee. “Right now, millions of Californians have effectively no protection from eviction.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles expressed concerns that some small landlords will be unable to pay their mortgages and bills if their tenants stop paying rent. He called for government assistance to subsidize tenants who can’t make their payments.

“Many see these eviction moratoriums as carte blanche for not paying rent for any reason,” said Daniel Yukelson, the apartment association’s executive director. “While nobody wants to see anyone that is truly impacted by the virus put out on the streets, the entire burden for housing people in our communities cannot merely be forced upon the backs of private citizens.”

Newsom signed an executive order March 27 banning residential evictions in California through May 31 if tenants are unable to pay their rent because they or a family member has COVID-19 or if they lost income because of the outbreak.

Tenants must notify their landlord in writing within seven days of the due date and must retain documentation showing they have suffered a coronavirus-related economic hardship. The tenant also remains obligated to repay the full rent “in a timely manner” and can still face eviction after the moratorium is lifted.

At least 38 city and county governments in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have adopted their own tenant protection measures, according to the California Apartment Association, some of which are more restrictive than the statewide mandate.

For example, the cities of Los Angeles, Pasadena, Anaheim and Santa Ana prohibit late fees for failing to pay rent during the pandemic. San Bernardino and Santa Ana give tenants six months to repay back rent.

The statewide moratorium does not override those measures, but applies in more than 400 California jurisdictions without eviction moratoriums of their own.

That leaves millions of renters unprotected, said Brian Augusta, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation during Wednesday’s news conference.

If tenants can’t pay their rent due to COVID-19, landlords still can file an eviction case in their local courthouse (if it’s still open), and tenants are required to respond within five days, Augusta said. Some judges may issue a default judgment against tenants who are unaware that they need to respond.

The protections for renters under the governor’s order aren’t as strong as protections for California homeowners, who get a 90-day breather if they can’t pay their mortgages.

“The governor did something for homeowners who have a mortgage payment,” Augusta said. “That is not the case for renters. Renters have to pay their rent under the governor’s order. … If you don’t pay it, there will be an eviction. The only question is when.”

Newport Beach real estate attorney J. Kyle Janecek disputed part of Augusta’s argument, saying tenants would have 65 days, not five, to respond to an eviction filing.

“The most essential way that the order affects the eviction process is by providing qualifying tenants an additional 60 days to respond to a complaint for eviction,“ Janecek, an associate of Newmeyer and Dillion LLP, said in an online post.

Nonetheless, Janecek said the governor’s moratorium is “not a perfect solution.”

“Right now, it seems to be pushing the problems down the road past June due to the current court delays and inevitable backlog,” he said. “On its face, the governor’s order alone does not protect renters with lost income, and will require more targeted action.”

Wiener said he is co-sponsoring a bill that would create a structure for renters to gradually repay their rent overtime “so renters are not hit with a huge back-rent bill.” However, the state Legislature isn’t due back in session until April 13, at the soonest.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles apartment association director Yukelson is calling for rent vouchers and other subsidies to ensure citizens can continue to pay for housing and other essential needs without bankrupting their landlords.

Some national leaders say landlords who are unable to pay their mortgage because their tenants aren’t paying rent likely will get “forbearance“ from their lenders.

But Yukelson said that may not be enough to help all landlords, some of whom may experience financial turmoil or health impacts from COVID-19 themselves. Many small landlords and retirees depend on their rental property income.

“While some may be able to avail themselves of mortgage relief or small business loans, if housing providers are ultimately never able to collect deferred rent, they may never catch up,” Yukelson said. “As a result, mortgage relief is nothing more then kicking the mortgage default and personal bankruptcy can down the road.”

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