For many central San Joaquin Valley renters facing significant loss of income and not receiving extra unemployment or housing benefits, the state’s eviction moratorium — put in place on April 6 by the California Judicial Council — was one of the only things keeping them from losing their homes.

Now, a day before the state’s moratorium expired on Tuesday, a new bill approved by state legislators and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday extends eviction protections for tenants who can prove COVID-19 impact.

There’s a catch: starting in September, tenants have to pay at least 25% of future rent to avoid eviction by March 2021 — and all rent unpaid at this point is still owed to landlords, leaving many concerned about tenants falling into insurmountable debt and small landlords unable to pay their bills.

Complicating matters more for tenants and landlords, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Tuesday announced a moratorium on all rent-related evictions through Dec. 31, 2020, for any tenants making less than $99,000 per year, or $198,000 for joint-filing households. The moratorium goes into effect on Friday.

The majority of the Valley legislative delegation supported the state bill. Sen. Anna Caballero, who represents part of Madera and Merced counties, was a co-sponsor for the bill, and Sens. Melissa Hurtado and Andreas Borgeas also voted in support. Borgeas, notably, was a “reluctant aye,” as he emphasized the need for more small landlord support in any future legislation.

In the Assembly, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula voted to support the bill, while Assemblymember Jim Patterson abstained and Assemblymember Frank Bigelow voted no.

Here’s what renters need to know

At this point, tenants are advised to follow instructions from both AB 3088 and the CDC moratorium to avoid eviction.

The new state bill, AB 3088, still puts the burden on tenants to proactively make a case to their landlord as to why they can’t pay their rent. To avoid eviction under the CDC moratorium, tenants also have to provide a declaration monthly to their landlord affirming their inability to pay rent.

Now, evictions related to lease violations — such as nuisance issues or having someone living in the home not on the lease — can proceed. These types of evictions appear to be permissible under the CDC’s moratorium as well.

Let’s break down some of the key provisions of the legislation for renters.

The rent is still due, but you can avoid eviction (temporarily) for not paying if you can prove you’re impacted by COVID-19.

The new legislation, AB 3088, prevents landlords from evicting tenants for missed rent payments accrued between March and Aug. 31.

Under the CDC moratorium, landlords cannot evict tenants for nonpayment of rent through Dec. 31 if tenants sign and provide a declaration to their landlord assuring they meet the income requirements, have been financially impacted, could become homeless if evicted, will attempt to make partial payments, and have attempted to seek government assistance to help pay their rent.

In the meantime, under the state’s rules, starting Sept. 1, renters need to pay at least 25% of all rent owed between now and Jan. 31, 2021, in order to avoid eviction. This portion could be paid in installments or in a lump sum at the end of the period. They must still let their landlords know in writing – within 15 days of receiving a notice from their landlords – why they are unable to pay all or some of their rent.

“Pay what you can, and make sure you let your landlords know your situation in writing. If you have a reduction in income because of COVID-19, gather your documentation,” said Sara Hedgepeth-Harris, a managing attorney at Central California Legal Services.

Additionally, tenants are advised to document all of their interactions with landlords, said Veronica Garibay, co-director of Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

According to the state legislation, loss of income due to coronavirus could mean:

  • You’ve lost your job or had a reduction in hours

  • You’re incurring more out-of-pocket expenses to perform essential work during the pandemic, such as buying protective equipment

  • Increased your expenses because of health impacts from the pandemic

  • Being unable to work as many hours because of child or elder care responsibilities

Providing documentation demonstrating proof of COVID-19 financial impacts can be more difficult for some, including those who work in the informal economy or “under the table,” and are more likely to be undocumented, according to Amber Crowell, an associate professor of sociology at Fresno State.

Your landlord could sue you if you don’t pay back owed rent by February 2021.

Renters are not off the hook for past due rent. Starting March 1, 2021, landlords can sue tenants in small claims court for any rent that was owed during the pandemic, according to the new legislation.

Renters who are designated as high-income, or earning more than 130% of the county area median income, will have to provide additional documentation of how they are financially impacted by COVID-19. In Fresno, Tulare, Madera, and Kings counties, this would apply to renters who make over $91,000 annually.

State legislation overtakes local eviction protections adopted by Fresno, Madera.

While Fresno and Madera City Councils have adopted more protective rules for tenants to avoid eviction, AB 3088 essentially preempts those ordinances, according to an email from the Fresno City Attorney’s Office.

An eviction ‘tsunami’?

Some housing experts have been predicting a nationwide “tsunami of evictions” as federal, state, and local eviction protections expire — and unemployment remains high.

Until now, some data suggest that while many renters have been able to pay some of their rent through the pandemic, for many, the situation is getting worse. A July survey of nearly 150 Fresno-area renters by Central California Legal Services and the Christian Community Development Collaborative found that nearly half of all respondents stated they were not able to pay all of their rent in July, and nearly 20% were already over $1,000 in debt from back rent.

The city of Fresno and Fresno County both have adopted emergency housing assistance funds, geared towards people who are unable to access federal stimulus cash or unemployment benefits — typically those who are undocumented or students. But the demand for rental assistance has already overwhelmed the system. Last week, the Fresno City Council approved an additional $5 million in housing retention grants.

Despite the moratorium, tenants’ attorneys have still been receiving regular calls from renters served with a three-day “pay or quit” notice. Many renters often interpret the notice as an eviction and move out, even though they aren’t obligated to do so, according to several sources. This process, known as an informal eviction, is very common, Crowell said.

And while the moratorium has slowed eviction filings in the central San Joaquin Valley, many are still getting evicted, according to a Fresnoland/Fresno Bee Public Records Act request of eviction filings in local courts and lockouts conducted by local sheriffs’ offices.

In Fresno County, as of Aug. 3, 32 eviction cases were filed. In Tulare County, 87 evictions filed, with 33 of those cases resulting in a writ of possession — a judgement has been ruled against the tenant. Madera County Superior Court was not responsive to the records request, but according to the Madera County Sheriffs’ Office, 23 lockouts were conducted during that time period.

Kings County remains the exception, with no evictions processed after the morning of March 19.

While some evictions have moved forward, there’s significantly less compared with previous years — likely due to the state moratorium. In Fresno County, 625 evictions have been filed in 2020, compared to 2,042 — over 3 times that amount — in 2019 by early August.

But with AB 3088 allowing more evictions to get through the process, could an eviction tsunami be coming to the San Joaquin Valley?

It could come down to whether tenants are able to effectively argue their case in court. According to a 2018 study by Fresno-based Faith in the Valley, less than 1% of tenants in the Central Valley have had legal representation in court. With the myriad of federal, state, and local regulations — all of which have changed nearly a dozen times since March — it’s hard for anyone to understand what applies.

“When tenants show up in court, even when the law is on their side, they don’t know how to argue their case, because it’s so confusing,” said Crowell, who was the primary researcher on the report.

Some tenant advocates are calling on Newsom to enact an executive order to extend a full eviction moratorium through the end of the year, according to a statement from Faith in the Valley, because of the uncertainty in how the law will function in reality.

Both Sens. Caballero and Borgeas acknowledged that the legislation doesn’t fully address many problems — of small landlords who rely on rental income to pay their bills as well as for renters who might be going into deeper debt.

And even though the CDC issued their moratorium, many are looking to the federal government to provide a longer-term solution that helps address the crippling debt tenants are accruing while preventing a mortgage crisis for landlords.

In her closing remarks on the senate floor, Caballero said, “This bill provides us with a framework to protect tenants and provide a better solution by January.”

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