At the beginning of the year, it looked like Jeremy Miller and his 9-year-old daughter were finally going to have a home of their own. They’d been homeless and relying on family, shelters and motels for housing. But he’d found stable work in the Kern County oil fields and had enough money for an $875-a-month, two-bedroom rental in Bakersfield.
They moved into the apartment in March, and Miller lost his job within days. The pandemic caused a worldwide drop in demand for oil, triggering mass layoffs in the oil patch. Miller tried to find other work through a temp agency, but there were few jobs. Plus his daughter’s school closed down, making it even harder to take work.
He couldn’t pay the rent. He started to get calls from the apartment managers and letters taped to his door telling him he was late on rent. In April, he got a notice threatening eviction if he didn’t pay.
“I was anxiety-ridden about paying the rent,” Miller said. “My daughter was asking, ‘Daddy, what’s an eviction? Are we going to be homeless?’”
Miller is still waiting for his unemployment benefits to arrive and he’s now months behind on his rent. He and his daughter have remained housed thanks to an order from the Judicial Council that halted evictions during the pandemic. But that order could expire as soon as Aug. 14. Once the eviction moratorium ends, tenants may have just days to pay back the rent they missed. If they can’t, they could be evicted.
Meanwhile, the economy is in tatters. More than 30 million U.S. workers are receiving unemployment insurance benefits. But the extra $600-a-week benefit that kept many Americans current on their rent ended last week, and it may not be revived. Eviction moratoriums are also expiring, including a national one that covered about 30% of rentals. As the downturn continues and safety nets weaken, we could see a tidal wave of evictions and foreclosures and a jump in homelessness even as the pandemic rages on.
California leaders need to act quickly to avoid greater suffering and economic devastation.
First, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers cannot allow the statewide eviction moratorium to expire without having strong tenant protections in place. The Judicial Council considered ending its moratorium in June but delayed the decision in order to give Newsom and the Legislature time to come up with an alternative measure. But that hasn’t happened yet.
There are two major tenant relief bills pending. Assembly Bill 1436 would extend the eviction moratorium until 90 days after the COVID-19 emergency ends, then give tenants 12 additional months to make any missed payments before their landlord could sue for the unpaid rent. And even then, the landlord could not evict a tenant for unpaid rent accumulated during the COVID emergency.
The idea is to ensure that renters who lost income during the pandemic and got behind on their rent don’t end up on the street. Low-income households were already struggling to pay the rent in California's pricey cities, and those workers have been hardest hit by the pandemic job losses. Some experts warn that the state could see a 20% increase in homelessness. Extreme times call for extreme tenant protections.
But AB 1436 could have devastating effects on landlords, particularly mom-and-pop operators who rely on their rentals for income and retirement. In California, about half of rentals are in properties with five units or less. If two tenants in a small complex can’t pay the rent, that’s a serious financial hit. AB 1436 now requires mortgage companies to let landlords delay payments for six months to a year, depending on the size of the property. That helps, but landlords still have to cover property taxes, insurance and maintenance.
Newsom and lawmakers have to pair a long-term eviction moratorium with landlord assistance. One proposal is Senate Bill 1410, which would give landlords tax credits if they agree to forgive missed rent payments from tenants who had COVID-related financial hardship. Landlords could sell the tax credits for cash immediately. Tenants would have to repay their rent debt to the state starting in 2024.
The challenge? SB 1410 could cost $10 billion over the life of the program. California may have little choice but to spend its limited dollars. Advocates and lawmakers had hoped the federal government would bail out tenants and landlords, but while congressional Republicans and President Trump have said they want to extend the federal eviction moratorium, there's little support for providing financial aid.
There’s no time to lose. California cannot let the eviction moratorium expire without a plan to prevent a larger catastrophe. Coronavirus infections and deaths continue to increase, and Californians still need to stay home for their own safety and the health of their community.
“Tenants are really scared now,” said Laura Matter of Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance. She’s been advising Jeremy Miller on his eviction concern. “They have no certainty. They say, ‘I am four months behind on rent. What’s going to happen when the order expires?’ I have to say I don’t know.”