Evictions protest
A broad coalition of housing rights advocates rallied in September at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse to protest eviction orders issued against renters. On Thursday, the California Legislature voted to extend protections against evictions through June 30. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
COVID Economy

California lawmakers vote to extend COVID-19 eviction protections through June

Californians facing financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic will be protected from eviction through June as long as they pay part of their rent under an emergency bill approved Thursday by the Legislature, just three days before an existing moratorium was set to expire.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign the legislation, which provides eviction protection for tenants who pay at least 25% of their rent through June and $2.6 billion in federal funds for rent subsidies that will help pay most past-due rent by low-income tenants dating back to last April.

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“We are painfully aware of the plight that California families are facing as they struggle to pay their rent or mortgages at no fault of their own because of the pandemic that we are in,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) told her colleagues during the floor debate. “So today we help Californians keep a roof over their head and keep their heads above water.”

The bill extends protections approved last summer that were set to expire this Sunday.

Though some lawmakers had called for the protections to be extended through the rest of this year, the bill approved Thursday was the product of negotiations with interest groups and takes into consideration landlord concerns that properties could go into foreclosure if rent is withheld that long.

State Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), who had proposed more extensive tenant protections last year, said she supports the compromise worked out with the governor.

“I believe it reflects a broad range of interests and protects vulnerable tenants from eviction and gets cash into the hands of small mom-and-pop landlords who have been struggling without their rental income,” Caballero said.

The coronavirus, which has killed more than 38,000 Californians, has also wreaked havoc on the state’s economy as stay-at-home orders issued by health officials last March resulted in millions of workers losing jobs or income, putting many at risk of eviction.

About 90,000 California households are behind on their rent by a collective total of $400 million, according to an estimate last week by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, although other estimates have been much higher.

Under the new bill and the measure approved last year, tenants can not be evicted as long as they pay 25% of their rent. The measure was submitted as a budget bill, which allows it to be approved with a majority vote. A regular bill requires a two-thirds vote to take effect immediately.

The bill allows tenants to qualify for the protections if they pay 25 percent of their rent each month or in a lump-sum payment by June 30, and attest that they face a financial hardship because of the pandemic.

Unpaid rent converts to debt that landlords can pursue through the courts, but it can’t be used to seek an eviction.

By tapping $2.6 billion approved by Congress during the Trump administration, the Legislature is offering a rent subsidy that will pay landlords 80% of the total amount of rent in arrears between April 2020 and March 2021 as long as landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20% and not pursue evictions.

In cases in which landlords do not agree to forgive unpaid rent, the state would pay 25% of the rent in arrears.

The passed the Senate without any opposition votes. The Assembly approved the measure on a 71-1 vote, with Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) casting the lone vote in opposition. Kiley said he believes the better solution is to reopen the economy and allow people to get back to work, and to fix problems with the state’s unemployment benefits system that have deprived jobless Californians of financial help.

“This measure is an excuse for neglecting those staggering problems,” Kiley told his colleagues. “I am not going to enable that neglect by voting for it.”

But Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen (R- Huntington Beach) and other Republicans voted for the bill, saying it will help landlords who own just one or two units whose income they depend on to make ends meet.

“They too have suffered,” she said. “They have gone a year now without any income. They also are trying to put food on the table for their families.”

Providing financial help to rental property owners was a key request of landlord groups.

“Getting dollars to landlords is imperative,” said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the California Apartment Assn., which represents rental housing owners. “Many landlords have not received rent in over a year and some owners are on the brink of losing their homes.”

During the flood debate, some lawmakers told stories of constituents at risk of eviction.

Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) said one resident of his district is a single mother of three children who has been out of work for eight months, and is five months behind on her rent.

“If it wasn’t for this eviction moratorium, her family would be forced onto the streets,” Gipson said.

In the end, several Democratic lawmakers voted for the bill even though they said it does not go far enough to protect renters.

Newly elected Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose) cast a “yes” vote but noted that if landlords decide not to accept the relief, tenants get less help and are at risk of eviction.

“I understand the motivation is to incentivize landlords to opt into the relief fund, but it is it is incumbent on us to do more to protect tenants,” Lee said during the floor debate.

Some tenant advocates also said the legislation is inadequate, leaving many people at risk of eviction and burdensome housing debt because landlord participation in waiving past-due rent is voluntary.

“It’s good that small landlords and non-profit housing providers will get help staying afloat, but we must further protect tenants with rent debt forgiveness — and from corporate landlords, speculators and others just trying to get tenants out,” said Lupe Arreola, executive director of the advocacy group Tenants Together.

Arreola’s group is part of a coalition of tenant advocacy organizations that said they were left out of the negotiations with the governor.

“Without tenants’ meaningful participation in these discussions, we will continue to see pandemic evictions rubber-stamped by our courts, and tenant attorneys will have to fight not only landlords, but the deeply misleading public message that tenants are protected,” said Stephano Medina, staff attorney at the Eviction Defense Network.

“Tenant groups are frustrated and rightly so,” Lee said. “They did not have ample opportunity to provide input.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.