When Rebecca Wright was late paying rent in October, her landlord at a mobile home park in Angels Camp posted a three-day notice to pay or quit the lease on the door of her trailer.
“I was so scared. I was beside myself,” said Wright, 50. She’s a widow who lost her job cleaning condos on March 22, three days after California’s coronavirus pandemic shelter-at-home order went into effect.
Following the recommendation of her daughter, Wright filled out a declaration of lost income due to COVID-19, and her landlord “eased off.” She is protected from eviction, for now.
California’s temporary ban on certain evictions prevented, or at least delayed, thousands of residents from losing their homes during the pandemic for nonpayment. And, to the relief of Wright and many others, the moratorium was recently extended through June.
Even so, renters continue to face eviction — the moratorium issued in September was never meant to stop all evictions. And, even more people have been kicked out of their homes outside the formal eviction process because they don’t know their rights or don’t have the ability to exercise them.
There is no hard data showing how many people have lost housing during the pandemic in California. Cal Matters reported that 1,600 households were evicted between March and September. Organizations that support low-income and impoverished people say it’s frequent and they expect to see more.
200 open cases in San Joaquin Valley
Central Valley Legal Services has 200 open eviction cases right now in the San Joaquin Valley, representing a fraction of the number of people actually losing their housing.
“The vast amount of cases are not coming to us (for legal help),” said Brandi Snow, an attorney with the legal aid organization.
About a third of Snow’s eviction cases were brought by landlords against tenants for allegedly violating sections of the lease other than nonpayment, like having trash on the porch, clutter in the window, or having a cat — often things the landlord never cared about until after the rent was overdue, Snow said.
AB 3088 protects tenants from retaliation for unpaid rent, but it’s difficult to prove in court.
Snow described one case in which an elderly woman in a duplex allowed her son to move in.
“The landlord knows. They talk about it at the mailbox,” Snow said. “Flashforward to April. Adult son lost his job. Now that he lost his job, they file a COVID hardship claim in October. Landlord comes back and says the adult son is an unauthorized subtenant. You have three days to either get him out or you both leave.”
“Now, we have an adult son in a pandemic with no job trying to find alternative housing,” Snow said. That’s a struggle, especially in the Valley where rents continue to climb.
Rent in Fresno increased nearly 8% since March, according to Apartment List.
Housing displacement due to affordability is a reality Orelia Maceda sees firsthand through her work with Oaxacan indigenous communities.
She said she knows at least three families in the San Joaquin Valley who lost their homes in the last six months and weren’t able to find similar alternatives.
A family with four children had to move out of Madera after they were told to leave their home of nine years in November.
Two families ousted from their Fresno homes last summer haven’t found alternative affordable housing — one family with two children had been in their apartment for seven years, another with four had been in their unit for three years.
The families are now all living with extended family, which “has been hard because there is not a lot of space,” Maceda told The Fresno Bee through a translator.
In at least one of those cases, the landlord sold the property to another landlord.
“We’re seeing a lot of those, where they’re at the end of the lease and landlords say, ‘We as owners have decided we’re not going to be in the rental market anymore,’ or they sell the property,” Snow said.
Eviction isn’t automatic even in the case of a property being sold, Snow said. There is a process and tenants have the right to challenge landlords’ orders.
It’s a gamble for the landlords, Snow said.
They’re thinking: “If I illegally lock this person out, what are the chances they’ll just go away?”
Snow isn’t sure how the court will rule on her cases of potential retaliatory evictions; most haven’t run their course through the courts.
For now, hundreds of people are waiting for their cases to be resolved to find out if they can stay in their homes — and thousands of Californians are wearily looking ahead to July, and a potential “tsunami of evictions” when the ban is lifted.
If evicted, those residents might not have another place to call home.
That’s what Wright said she is worried about most. She’s been homeless before and moving to Angels Camp was supposed to be a fresh start.
A year ago, Wright had a steady job, a stable home and $3,000 in savings. She was able to pull together rent through November. But she’s had nothing for December or January.
Now, she owes her landlord back rent and she has no income. Her savings are gone and her unemployment ran out. Just last week, before the moratorium was extended, she thought she’d lose her home, too.
“I was panicking,” Wright said. “I’m sure the landlord’s not doing well, either, and I feel for him. But it’s rough out on the streets.”