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As Eviction Cliff Looms, Calls To Cancel Rent Grow

Housing rights activists in California are pushing for taxation of rich residents to help the hundreds of thousands of people who may be at risk of losing housing after COVID-19 eviction restrictions end.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through California, the state’s residents are weathering several crises. California now has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Nearly seven million workers have filed for unemployment since March. Last month’s jobless rate was 14.9 percent, compared with 4 percent for June of 2019. 

Now, a growing movement is raising the alarm about another potential disaster: a wave of evictions when the state’s modest protections for renters are lifted. 

The Judicial Council, which sets policy for the California court system, has provided the only statewide protections against eviction during the pandemic, according to Madeline Howard, a senior attorney with the Western Center on Law & Poverty. 

In April, the council issued emergency rules that halted eviction proceedings unless the eviction was necessary to protect “public health and safety.” The rules can be repealed at any time at the body’s discretion, even if the state of emergency is still in place. 

On Friday, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye announced at a council meeting that the council will vote soon on terminating the rules, and that they could be lifted as early as Aug. 14. “We have always known that the remedies that we sought for all the affected parties are best left to the legislative and executive branches of government,” said Cantil-Sakauye, who also chairs the council. “I urge our sister branches to turn their attention to this critical work to protect people from devastating effects of this pandemic and its recent resurgence.”

If there are no statewide protections in place when the rules are lifted, hundreds of thousands of people may lose their homes, said Howard. “The thing that is stopping the wave of evictions, that we are all very afraid of, is their emergency rule,” she said.

Speaking on Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom said he wanted “a further bridge—at least through the end of the year, perhaps longer—to work through this so that we can avoid the most significant impacts that this virus has had on peoples’ pocketbooks and their capacity to pay rent, and many cases to pay their mortgage.” He also said last week that he was “working very closely with the legislature.”

Uniform, statewide protections against evictions would mark a departure from Newsom’s approach since March, according to housing rights advocates. So far, residents have had to rely on city or county ordinances, as well as the Judicial Council’s orders. 

The governor issued an executive order in March that was mistakenly hailed as an eviction moratorium, said Howard. That order expired in May; another order, which was extended through the end of September, permits local jurisdictions to enact housing protections for residents, creating a jumble of local laws. 

“None of the governor’s orders actually protected people from eviction,” said Howard. “The real protection that’s coming right now is from the courts.” 

No protections exist at the national level either, even though 19 million to 23 million people who live in rental households are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. A federal moratorium that suspended evictions for those who receive federally subsidized housing assistance or live in a building with a federally backed mortgage expired Friday.

As in the rest of the country, evictions in California would hit people of color hardest. Before the pandemic, almost 25 percent of Black residents in the state and just under 20 percent of Latinx residents spent more than half their income on housing, compared with about 15 percent of white residents, according to the California Budget & Policy Center. 

Varying degrees of protection exist throughout California, depending on the jurisdiction. “There’s very, very little that’s been done on a statewide level,” said Marc Janowitz, a staff attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center. “Counties have responded in a much better way, and cities in a much better way.”

In Oakland, for instance, most evictions are halted through Aug. 31. Even after the moratorium is lifted, tenants who have been financially affected by COVID-19 cannot be evicted for rent that was unpaid during the local state of emergency. However, a landlord can sue for unpaid rent. 

Some housing rights activists say that the solution is simple: Cancel the rent statewide and have California’s richest residents—including its more than 160 billionaires—pay the bill through increased taxation. The net worth of the state’s 20 wealthiest residents actually grew by 30 percent between March and June, according to the California Divide project, a collaboration of state media organizations. 

“We need to figure out how to bail out people,” said Carroll Fife, regional director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment for San Francisco and Oakland, one of the organizations leading the campaign to cancel rent. “The people who are holding up the economy, the people who are just lost right now because they don’t have income.” 

After the pandemic hit, Patricia Mendoza, a single mother of two, lost her job in medical transport. She has not been able to pay her monthly rent of $1,500 for months, she said. 

“I see no way out of my debt,” said Mendoza, an activist with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. 

“The rich get rich and the poor get forgotten,” she said. “Make these rich people pay.”

Assemblymember David Chiu, who represents San Francisco, has floated a more modest proposal than cancelling rent. His bill, AB 1436, would forbid landlords from evicting tenants who have been financially affected by COVID-19 for failure to pay rent for the covered time period, defined as the duration of the state of emergency order and for 90 days following the lifting of the order, or April 21, 2021, whichever comes first. Landlords would be required to wait 12 months after the covered time period before pursuing legal action against tenants, but those actions cannot include eviction for unpaid rent during the covered time period. 

“A mass wave of evictions is looming that has the potential to leave thousands homeless in California,” Chiu said in a statement to The Appeal. “We cannot sit back and simply allow this to happen. We have to implement strong eviction protections to avoid this catastrophe.”