A young person holds a sign reading “Keep Our Children Housed,” as Inez Hernandez, a mother of four who was recently evicted from the Manchester Arms apartment complex, speaks during a press conference at City Hall, April 8, 2021, held by the Right to Counsel coalition. The coalition, is seeking help in implementing legal support and protection for renters, who face evictions, unsafe living conditions, and other problems. The coalition, with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Faith in the Valley, students from Fresno State, faith leaders, and people who have been evicted. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

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Inez Hernnadez and her six children were locked out of their Manchester Arms apartment in Fresno in March 2021, during the eviction moratorium. Hernandez withheld rent after her landlord failed to fix a number of problems in her apartment. She had falsely believed that she would not face eviction during the moratorium — but that was not the case.

Unable to find housing, Hernandez and her children moved in with family. Now, they live in a motel in Fresno that costs $120 a day.

Her family was not alone in navigating an eviction during the pandemic.

At least 1,138 households were displaced across three central San Joaquin Valley counties during the 18-month statewide eviction moratorium, according to lockout data obtained through public records requests.

Not all evictions result in lockouts, and, in some cases, tenants leave before an eviction is carried out in court, so the exact number of evictions during the coronavirus-induced renter protection period is likely much higher.

Some local moratoriums went into effect around mid-March, but the statewide eviction moratorium went into place March 27, 2020, preventing evictions of renters who could show proof they were financially impacted by COVID-19 while still paying at least 25% of the rent they owed by the end of the moratorium.

It was not a ban on all evictions.

“We never had a moratorium; I don’t know why it gets called a moratorium,” said Amber Crowell, researcher with Faith in the Valley. “The closest thing we had was when the judicial council just stopped processing the filings (from April to September 2020).”

Local housing advocates pushed for an extension of renter protections, citing studies linking lower rates of transmission to areas with eviction moratoriums in place.

After multiple extensions, the eviction moratorium ended Sept. 30 in California — discontinuing protections in the central San Joaquin Valley, with the exception of the city of Fresno which still has a local moratorium in place for now.

“While certain provisions of the state eviction moratorium did sunset in 2021, tenants continue to receive a level of protection from eviction for nonpayment of rent through March 31, 2022,” according to a statement from the California Apartments Association to The Bee in response to questions on evictions.

Rental assistance for 100% of up to 18 months of rental debt is still available statewide for renters who earn 80% or less of their area’s median income. The money goes directly to landlords, unless they refuse to participate in the program, in which case the money goes to the renter. Landlords also must apply for emergency rental assistance before attempting to evict a renter for nonpayment, even now that the moratorium has ended.

“Since the start of the pandemic, [California Apartments Association] has urged all rental housing providers to follow all state and local laws that provided additional protections to renters,” the CAA statement said.

How many residential lockouts took place?

Through public records requests, Fresnoland obtained lockout records from the sheriff’s offices in Fresno, Madera and Kings counties — as well as partial data from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office — from March 27, 2020 to Sept. 31, 2021 for a look at evictions that still occurred when nonpayment of rent was taken out of the equation.

Fresnoland could confirm that 919 residential lockouts took place in Fresno County between March 27, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021. Roughly 100 commercial lockouts took place during that period as well.

In Madera County, about 112 residential lockouts took place in the 18-month timeframe, according to records obtained from the Sheriff’s Office.

And in Kings County, the Sheriff’s Office conducted approximately 107 residential lockouts – totaling 1,138 residential lockouts from mid-March 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021 between the three counties.

Lockout data from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office did not include the exact addresses of the lockouts within this timeframe, so Fresnoland was unable to determine whether the reported lockouts were residential or commercial. Still, a total of 449 residential and commercial lockouts were recorded during the moratorium in Tulare County.

Some of the lockouts that were recorded in the early months of the pandemic resulted from judgments made before the eviction moratorium went into effect.

How did the eviction moratorium impact evictions?

A Faith in the Valley study estimated that prior to COVID-19, there were more than 2,000 evictions, and likely “as high as 4,000 plus, every year, due to the number of informal evictions that are not documented in court filings.”

The study noted that the largest chunk of evictions were typically for nonpayment of rent. The eviction moratorium, however, flipped that on its head.

“Usually a nonpayment eviction is the easiest one to make happen, if you are a landlord, because it’s a yes or no question. Did they pay the rent?” said Brandi Snow, legal director of Central California Legal Services. “During these nonpayment protections, the nonpayment evictions were the hardest ones.”

Snow told The Bee in October that during the 18-month period, CCLS continued to see eviction cases for breaches of contract (such as damages to property) and no fault evictions (such as landlords selling their rental properties).

Also, people who had not notified their landlord of financial hardship, in some cases, received eviction notices for nonpayment of rent. According to Snow, others, like Hernandez, were unaware that they could be evicted during the moratorium and reached out to CCLS too late to stop a default eviction which occurs if a tenant does not respond to the court within six days of receiving an eviction notice.

Hernandez said misinformation about how the eviction moratorium worked left her unprepared to seek new housing. Hernandez began withholding rent in October 2020, not related to COVID-19 hardship, but because her landlord had not fixed the broken heater, mold and other issues she had reported. In February 2021 she reached out to Fresno City Code Enforcement, but still, the issues went unresolved. Her apartment was one of many at Manchester Arms with habitability concerns, however many tenants told The Bee that they were fearful of being evicted if they were to report issues to code enforcement.

“If I would have known that … he’s going to be able to kick you out regardless of the pandemic, I would have been saving more money; I would probably try to find another place before that (eviction) hit my credit, maybe even pay months in advance for a hotel,” Hernandez said. “There were a lot of things I could have done, if everybody gave me accurate info.”

CCLS sees rise in eviction cases on technicalities

While there was a decrease in eviction cases overall, Snow said CCLS saw a “notable” increase in evictions for breaches of contract that may not have mattered in previous years, especially when the tenant could not afford to keep up with their rent.

“We were seeing a pattern of those types of evictions being filed on what appeared to be pretty sketchy grounds,” Snow said. “Why is this now a problem sort of stuff, and then when we looked, we would see that, in fact, that person was behind on their rent.”

Snow said that people who had owned pets for years with their landlord’s knowledge, were suddenly getting eviction notices for unauthorized pets and adult children were being considered unauthorized guests.

“Is it technically a violation of the lease? It may very well be – we saw some that were and some that weren’t – but things where it was very clearly something that had not bothered the landlord until they couldn’t evict for nonpayment.”

Alexandra Alvarado, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley, said renters reported receiving notices for having barbecues or chairs on their front porch, and some opted to leave rather than wait for the eviction to go through.

“They doubled up with their family,” Alvarado said. “They just left; they weren’t up for that fight.”

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Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.