Tenants in Oakland Are Going on a Rent Strike Tomorrow
Residents have been told to stay in their homes to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus—but little has been done to ensure they can afford to stay there, activists say.
Tomorrow, tenants of several apartment buildings in Oakland, California, will go on a rent strike, community organizers say. Similar actions are being planned throughout the state.
“There are several individuals across this country that will not be able to financially afford to pay rent and also have food for their families,” said Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland office for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “People are, just by necessity, withholding funds so they can survive this crisis.”
In just a few weeks, thousands of people in California have lost their jobs, as businesses have been ordered to close or restrict their operations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. More than a million people in the state filed for unemployment between March 13 and March 25, according to news reports. Many of those in the hardest hit occupations—including waiters, childcare workers, hotel clerks and manicurists—were already earning low wages, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
“The Californians who will bear the brunt of the economic slowdown live paycheck to paycheck even when work is plentiful and are unlikely to have savings to fall back on when their jobs disappear,” the group wrote.
COVID-19 is also exacerbating an already dire housing situation for the state’s residents, housing rights advocates say. More than 150,000 people are homeless in California. The state’s rental units are the most crowded in the country, according to a report published last year by the Urban Institute—13.3 percent have more than one occupant per room. And over 40 percent of California renters and homeowners—the highest percentage in the nation—spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to Bloomberg News.
“We were already in a horrible housing crisis,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, a legal director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “There needs to be a connection between what people are being paid and what housing costs are.”
While Governor Gavin Newsom was the first governor to issue a statewide stay at home order, he has not ensured that people can afford to stay in their homes, housing rights advocates say. Now they are calling for him to enact a state-wide mandatory eviction moratorium.
The novel coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets—particles of mucus and spit expelled when people breathe, talk, cough and sneeze. Scientists believe that people can spread the virus even if they are not exhibiting symptoms. In a commentary for the San Francisco Examiner, housing rights advocates criticized the governor’s order, writing that, “At this moment our strongest tool for keeping communities safe—sheltering in place—is only as effective as the least healthy and housing secure person.”
The state currently has a patchwork of varying levels of protections for tenants, as counties, including Oakland, have enacted emergency ordinances, and sheriffs have pledged to suspend evictions. Newsom’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment.
On March 27, Newsom issued an executive order extending the deadline for tenants to respond to eviction lawsuits from five court days to 60 days. “For tenants, there will be no eviction proceedings; there will be no enforcement as it relates to pay for COVID-19,” Newsom said at a news conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Activists say the move was mistakenly hailed as a coronavirus eviction ban. But a true eviction moratorium would suspend physical evictions based on existing judgements, and ban landlords from serving new eviction notices or filing new eviction lawsuits, said Jackie Zaneri, a tenants’ rights staff attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza. His order, she said, is not “getting to the root of the problem, which is people need more time to pay.”
The 60-day extension only applies to those who are unable to pay rent as a result of COVID-19 and can provide documentation, such as termination notices, payroll checks, bank statements, medical bills, or signed letters from an employer. A tenant must notify their landlord of an inability to pay no later than seven days after the rent is due.
The onus is still on tenants to file a response to the eviction lawsuit within five court days to even be considered for the 60 day extension, according to Zaneri. Otherwise they would risk a judge issuing a default judgment against them, which would then lead to an eviction from their home, she said.
“If you haven’t filed anything in the case yet, how would the court know that you’re entitled to 60 days versus five days?” she said. “If a tenant doesn’t answer in five days, there’s no reason to think at all that the courts will treat this any differently.”
The executive order allows landlords to continue to serve eviction notices and does not require landlords to accept back rent for those who do receive the 60 day extension, which means people can be evicted after the extension is up, even if they can pay. It also makes no mention of suspending evictions due to renovations, converting the property to another use, or for no cause, according to an analysis by Western Center on Law and Poverty, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and Disability Rights California. The order, the groups wrote, “provides no practical help for renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We can’t go to his office and demonstrate,” said Simon-Weisberg. “We can’t have a press conference. There’s all these things we can’t do. But you know what every single tenant can do to say to the governor, ‘You didn’t protect us,’ is they can hold onto their rent.”