California Politics Might be Liberal, LandLords are Not. Evictions Pursued During Covid-19 Pandemic.
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Governer Gavin Newsom and his family at a 2015 San Francisco Pride. California's liberal image contrasts with the reality that millions of tenants are at risk of being evicted by their landlords. State officials ponder the best course of action to protect tenants from eviction and debt and how to assuage outraged landlords. Image by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.
Many Landlords in California Aggressively Pursue Evictions in the Midst of an Accelerating Rise in Covid-19 Cases and Deaths
The situation in California has grown more dire and chaotic as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on. The list of statistics on what is going wrong and what could go wrong due to Covid-19 seems to run indefinitely. In July 2020, one in seven tenants either did not pay rent or paid rent late and one in six are forecasted to struggle paying rent in August 2020 according to the U.S. Census Bureau New Household Pulse Survey. The survey also revealed that 3.8 million tenants in California had little confidence that they would be able to pay rent. In Los Angeles alone, 495,000 households are at risk of eviction according to UCLA researchers. These evictions would occur while Covid-19 infection rates are in an upswing in California. On August 1, 2020 California became the first state to have tested half a million people positive for Covid-19 and according to the New York Times, as of August 5, 2020 there has been at least 9,709 deaths from Covid-19.
California Landlords Refuse to Recognize Covid-19
However in the midst of a crisis, the Judicial Council of California will meet soon to consider terminating the emergency judicial order, implemented April 6, 2020, which halted all court action on evictions until August 14, 2020. The chances of the Judicial Council extending this order seem slim. California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye explains, “The remedies are best left to the legislative and executive branches of government.” Yet key legislators who are working to pass relief for renters know the stakes. “The clock is ticking. We only have two weeks to avoid complete catastrophe.” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco who has presented the AB1436 proposal to halt evictions until April 1, 2021 and provide tenants a year to pay back rent. In another article he further assessed the potential for disaster, “We have a looming crisis of potentially a massive wave of evictions that will be catastrophic for homelessness as well as for coronavirus.” Ananya Roy, director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), also understand the stakes, “When talking about the scale of eviction and mass displacement, it’s pretty unimaginable. This will be worse than the Great Depression.”
Yet many landlords appear to negate the Covid-19 pandemic as significant to their personal situations. The focus of their ire seems to solely rest on non-paying tenants and even struggling tenants who pay rent late. Theresa Ribeiro, who was late on rent, received a series of threatening messages from her landlord Jon Souza. In one of the messages he can be heard exclaiming, “I’m going to evict you. I don’t give a [expletive] about this virus thing...These rules are not applying.” Landlords across California ruminate about their possible financial ruin while seemingly oblivious to how Covid-19 has devastated the financial situations of their tenants due to how contagious the virus is. The question, ‘Should mass evictions occur while a virus contagious enough to obliterate large segments of the economy still runs rampant?’ does not enter their minds.
Landlords File for Evictions Across California
The state of California has laid layers of protections for renters, especially renters who have been directly affected by Covid-19 medically and/or financially. However these layers have inadvertently created a confusing entanglement of laws, ordinances and orders that any determined landlord can easily find loopholes through. Jackie Zaneri, an attorney with the tenants’ rights group Centro Legal de la Raza, explains, “The governor did not issue an evictions moratorium - that’s confusing for a lot of tenants because the governor did actually say that he issued an ‘evictions moratorium’. The most generous reading of the governor’s order is that he issued some very limited protections for certain tenants to prevent Sheriffs from evicting them for a very limited time.” Governor Gavin Newsom’s order strictly applies to those who can demonstrate that the lack of a payment for rent is due to the pandemic and to those who live in cities and counties that passed their own ordinances halting evictions. The tenants must notify their landlords in writing their inability to pay due to Covid-19 and be able to back up their claims with verifiable documentation. In addition, the Judicial Order which is preventing all evictions from proceeding and preventing the court from backing evictions through issuing a summons will expire on August 14, 2020. Then it will largely be on the individual counties and cities to use the authority bestowed on them by Governor Newsom’s Executive Order to provide adequate evictions. However the Governor’s order, made effective March 27, 2020, is set to expire on September 30, 2020.
Although evictions cannot proceed in court at this time, landlords can file for evictions and send notices which can create the appearance that an eviction is now in the hands of the court. For example, Maria Aguila, who prior to the pandemic was working three jobs became unable to work due to contracting Covid-19; yet she was still served with an eviction notice by her landlord. The simple appearance of a potential eviction prompts many uninformed tenants to leave. While tenants struggle to survive financially and ill tenants fight to recover from Covid-19 such as the ones who contact Anne Tamiko Omura, director of Eviction Defense Center describes as, “People are calling all the time who have no money for food. Nannies, Uber drivers, restaurant workers, they are all out of work,” landlords are steadily filing evictions hoping to scare them into moving before August 14, 2020. Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together explains, “The question is what do tenants do when they get that eviction notice? In our experience, tenants sometimes react out of fear of the impact on their credit report or on their court record, and also fear retaliation and will move out when they get a notice.”
Stephanie Swain, who was laid off from her job as a paralegal in March, used her familiarity with the legal process to retort a three-day notice, demanding the payment of approximately $2,400 or face eviction. She told her landlord that the notice was in violation of the local ordinances. But her landlord found another loophole and claimed that the property was being sold and all the residents of the house must move. Swain lamented, “We just feel really defeated and devastated. We’re looking everyday for rentals but there’s not a whole lot out there, and there’s also not much out there that we can afford, especially while I’m not working. It’s kind of just a waiting game, like what’s he going to do next? What are we going to do next?”
California's liberal image was challenged again in a protest against Big Oil on Februrary 2020. Protesters invited Governor Newsom to stand up to Big Oil despite the money they pour into lobbying and other campaign efforts. Image by Peg Hunter on Flickr.
California Landlords Aggressively Conduct Illegal Self-Help Evictions
Covid-19 has attacked the population of California from all angles and now many landlords are waging war against financially vulnerable tenants, many with comorbidities, with no thought about the pandemic. Despite the pandemic, the predominant focus is maintaining a positive financial state and destroying anyone who interferes with their goal to profit financially even if that person is someone like Patricia Mendoza, a single mother who was laid off due to the pandemic and is now struggling to provide food for her family. Claudette Cooper who manages dozens of downtown San Diego properties, expresses their position, “It’s just absolutely stunning to all of us. [They] haven’t been able to afford their own mortgage. We have cases of fraud that you know these people need to be evicted. There are thousands of people taking advantage of COVID.” Another Los Angeles landlord, Susan Chang, complains, “Me and my husband own a block of apartments in Los Angeles. Out of the 12 units, currently 5 are not paying any rent. Our income has literally been halved.” Many have turned to illegal self-help evictions. Oliver Ehlinger, an attorney for Northern California Legal Services details the many intimidation tactics landlords use, “Landlords lock out tenants, demand they return their keys and bombard them with ominous letters.” Housing advocates across California claim that landlords have reportedly blocked tenants from their homes and other landlords abuse restraining orders to remove tenants. Property owners also deceive tenants by presenting tenants with paperwork that appear to be a formal, court ordered eviction lawsuit. Even though the Judicial Council has halted all court summons, some landlords have been able to use this false paperwork to compel their local sheriff to conduct an illegal eviction.
Jessica Zabaleta’s landlord Candelario Cejas shut off her hot water and in another instance a group of men blocked her, reporters and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) activists from entering the home. Christopher Borunda, was told in a notice that he had seven days to vacate his East Hollywood apartment. When he did not move, his electricity was shut off, the locks were changed, his internet was shut down and his landlord began demolishing the kitchen and bathroom. The courts in Imperial County, despite the Judicial Council’s order freezing court order evictions, allowed landlords to proceed with evictions and carry out court ordered evictions. The landlords nor the county did care that Covid-19 mortality rates were disproportionately high in the county in comparison to other counties and cities in California. “People being evicted from their homes is a public health and safety problem,” said Adriane Bracciale, directing attorney for the legal aid organization’s office in El Centro, the County Seat, “That’s why this emergency rule was instituted so that people aren’t being kicked out of their home during a contagious, deadly pandemic.”
Desperate Landlords Across California File Lawsuits to Challenge Evictions Ordinances
Landlords have been strategically using their power to overwhelm California with their demands to end orders, ordinances and moratoriums that interfere with their ability to evict tenants. Doug Michie, a real estate lawyer in Ventura, sued the Judicial Council and Governor Gavin Newsom in May 2020 in the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California. He explains the reasoning behind his suit, “Why is the cost of this recession placed on the backs of a handful of citizens. It’s removed the leverage of landlords to negotiate with the tenant.” However there was no comment made about the pandemic. The Pacific Legal Foundation who filed on behalf of two landlords in Kern County’s Superior Court lambasted the Judicial Council’s action as unconstitutional and exceeding their authority. Michie also argued that the order was unconstitutional. After receiving letters threatening a lawsuit, Upland and La Verne repealed their eviction ordinances. These letters sent to the city of Costa Mesa by Douglas Dennington of the law firm Rutan & Tucker on the behalf of residential and commercial property owners, posited that the eviction bans force landlords, “to become involuntary lenders to their tenants.” A strong coalition consisting of the San Francisco Apartment Association, the San Francisco Association of Realtors, Coalition for Better Housing and Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute, sued in a bid to overturn the Covid-19 Tenant Protection Ordinances made effective on June 27, 2020 by Mayor London Breed. The lawsuit also claimed that the ordinance violated constitutional and state law.
While in Los Angeles, the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles condemned and took action against the city’s ordinances as a violation of their 5th amendment rights which declares it is against the law for the government to seize property without compensation. “If allowed to stand, the ordinance will not only continue to violate plaintiff’s members’ rights under both the California and United States Constitutions, but will continue to inflict massive and widespread economic damages on property owners and landlords throughout the city,” said the lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. However there is no recognition of the pandemic and its effects were neatly set aside so that tenants and their respective cities and counties could remain as the enemy. Strangely there was no comment on whether the ordinances and orders halting foreclosures are also unconstitutional. The landlords are missing the valuable reason for why government officials put these ordinances and orders in place. Michael Trujillo, a lawyer with the Nonprofit Law Foundation of Silicon Valley defends the ordinance and gives a reminder, “it’s a critical public health protection.” Kimberly Hall Barlow, Costa Mesa’s city attorney, also recognizes the implications of an emergency, “The cases are uniform in saying when the circumstances justify it and (the ordinance) is designed to address a public health emergency, which this is, then constitutional rights give way.”
California Courts, the Judicial Branch of California: Emergency Rules 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 of the California Rules of Court, order effective April 6, 2020.
California Globe: The Unseen Costs Of The Extended Eviction Moratorium, article published July 2, 2020.
CalMatters: California county with highest COVID death rate violated court rules for evictions, article published July 29, 2020.
CBS8: California lawmakers race to pass rent, mortgage relief bills as state eviction moratorium set to expire, article published August 4, 2020.
CBS News: California becomes first state to hit half a million coronavirus cases, article published August 1, 2020.
Executive Department State of California: Executive Order N-37-20, order effective March 27, 2020.
The Guardian: California landlords are locking out struggling tenants. A 'tsunami of evictions' may be next, article published July 30, 2020.
JD Supra, LLC: Gov. Newsom Extends California Moratoriums on Residential Tenant Evictions, article published June 2, 2020.
Los Angeles Times: California faces an eviction catastrophe. Newsom, lawmakers need to act now, editorial published August 2, 2020.
Los Angeles Times: Landlord group sues city of L.A. over coronavirus anti-eviction protections, article published June 11, 2020.
Mercury News: Coronavirus: California landlords begin testing state eviction ban, article published June 29, 2020.
NBC Bay Area: Renters Still Getting Eviction Notices During Pandemic Despite California's ‘Ban', article published May 11, 2020.
New York Times: California Coronavirus Map and Case Count, statistics updated August 5, 2020.
NOLO: COVID-19, California Eviction Moratoriums (Bans) and Tenant Protections, encyclopedia page last updated August 5, 2020.
Office of the Mayor San Francisco: Executive Order Extending Residential Eviction Moratorium, order effective July 27, 2020.
The Sacramento Bee: Eviction ban to end in California. And a crisis looms if lawmakers don’t act, article published August 1, 2020.
San Francisco Chronicle: SF real estate groups sue city over pandemic eviction law they say goes ‘too far’, article published June 30, 2020.
San Francisco Chronicle: What to do about rent: California running out of time to avoid catastrophic wave of evictions, article published August 3, 2020.
The Orange County Register: Landlords threaten to sue cities over coronavirus eviction bans, article published May 13, 2020.
The Orange County Register: Vote planned to end California’s eviction ban, article published July 29, 2020.
VC Star: Local tenants say they're still receiving eviction notices during moratoriums, article published July 21, 2020.
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