California has spent billions of dollars in recent years trying to ease the state’s staggering and disgraceful homeless crisis. As Gov. Gavin Newsom declared just a few months ago: “This is our cause. This is our calling.”
Yet now, with the state’s COVID eviction moratorium set to expire in less than a week, state leaders appear incapable of taking bold action to prevent an eviction tsunami that will surely result in countless families being forced onto the streets during a pandemic.
Why are Newsom and lawmakers pondering only half-measures? And why did they wait until the last possible moment to address this very real, very knowable eviction cliff?
In April, the Judicial Council halted nearly all eviction and foreclosure proceedings in the state. The rare order by the court system helped ensure that people didn’t lose their homes during the pandemic or wind up in a courtroom when they should be sheltering in place.
But the Judicial Council’s eviction moratorium was always a temporary measure. The courts can’t set housing policy; that is the job of the Legislature and governor. And earlier this month — after giving lawmakers plenty of time to come up with an alternative solution — the council announced that the moratorium would end at midnight Sept. 1. Once the moratorium lifts, tenants may have just days to pay back the rent they missed. If they can’t, they could be evicted.
Low-income households are most at risk, with workers who earn less than $40,000 a year accounting for 40% of COVID-related job losses. These are people who struggled to cover their housing expenses before the pandemic. We’ve already seen what happens when people living on the financial edge can’t afford to pay the rent — they can end up in tents or sleeping in their cars or RVs.
Yet from April through August, state leaders have taken a shockingly lackadaisical attitude toward the looming crisis. Senate Bill 1410 would have given landlords tax credits if they agreed to forgive missed rent payments from tenants who had COVID-related financial hardships, but it died amid concerns that it was too complicated and, from the governor’s perspective, too expensive. Assembly Bill 1436, which would have extended the eviction moratorium until the COVID emergency ended, is still alive but trapped in negotiations.
Advocates say Newsom and legislators are close to deal that would allow eviction proceedings to restart Wednesday, but enable tenants to stop them if they certify that they have a COVID-related financial hardship. From Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, tenants would have to pay 25% of their rent to avoid eviction. Unpaid rent would be treated as a consumer debt, not a cause for eviction.
While such a compromise could help many renters, what’s going to happen to the jobless who have to pay 25% of their rent on modest unemployment benefits? And how are tenants going to repay thousands of dollars in unpaid rent debt if the recession drags on? What about the landlords, particularly mom-and-pop operators, who need money to keep the lights on and their taxes paid? And how on Earth are the courts going to handle the expected deluge of evictions and sort out which tenants deserve a reprieve when many courts are still operating at 30% capacity?
From the beginning, California leaders have pinned their hopes on a federal rescue package that would include money for tenants and landlords. That hasn’t happened. Now leaders are hoping that after the November election, a Biden administration will bail out renters, landlords and the state budget. But that’s a risky gamble that could end very badly.
No, California has little choice but to spend its limited dollars to help the most vulnerable renters and landlords. The state can spend now or spend a lot more later when the eviction and foreclosure crisis spirals out of control.
It can’t be the state’s “calling” to end homelessness only when the economy is booming. This is the moment when the state can have the most impact on the homelessness crisis — by preventing people from losing their homes at the worst possible time.