Santa Clara County and several local cities passed emergency laws temporarily banning evictions last week, all of which are about to be put to the test.
With April 1 approaching and thousands of families already reporting being unable to pay the rent due to the new coronavirus, tenants and landlords alike are scrambling to navigate the new laws. How long is it in effect? How much time do renters have to report that they can't pay? And when is the money finally due?
The rules are in many cases different from one city to the next. For Mountain View, those questions were answered only as recently as Friday, just days before April rent payments are due.
The upshot is that families who have lost income because of the coronavirus -- either the illness itself or income lost due to the shelter order by public health officials -- can stay in their homes and not be subject to an eviction for failing to pay rent for several months. The county's eviction moratorium lasts through May 31, and gives renters a 120-day grace period after that to come up with the back rent.
The protections, which extend to commercial renters, mean tenants have a reprieve on March, April and May rents until late September, giving them time to return to work and earn money to pay off the delayed costs. Nothing in recent eviction protections imposed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the county or the city waives unpaid rent, meaning it must be paid back after the health crisis is over.
In Mountain View, tenants will have seven days to inform landlords that they can't pay rent, and an additional seven days after that to provide documents proving that the coronavirus and its myriad impacts on the local economy has resulted in a "substantial" loss of income. Even if a landlord were to attempt to evict a tenant, it wouldn't go far: County courts announced Friday that they would not process any legal paperwork or hold court proceedings that would result in a residential or commercial eviction.
The county ordinance is purposefully vague about what constitutes a substantial loss, but indicates that proving any of the following should be enough:
• Job loss
• Reduction in work hours
• A store or business closure
• Missing work to care for homebound school-age kids
• Caring for a family member infected with COVID-19
An impending disaster
Last week, the nonprofit Destination: Home announced an $11 million fund to keep families housed and financially stable after losing income due to the coronavirus. It took two weeks to collect, drawing on the support of public agencies and private companies.
Within just a couple of hours of launching the relief program, there was a crush of 1,400 applications. Sacred Heart Community Services, the nonprofit spearheading the effort, had its website crash almost immediately and its voicemail system completely overloaded with requests. In three days, that pool of applications grew to 4,000, more than exhausting the fund.
Destination: Home CEO Jennifer Loving told the Voice that the eviction moratorium is important and staves off an immediate surge of evictions and people on the street. But she worries that a staggering number of lower-income families -- already barely scraping by -- are suddenly unable to pay for rent, health care and other essential costs. Absent enough financial assistance, she believes the county is on course for "financial calamity."
She acknowledged that the initial $11 million wasn't nearly enough, but that the nonprofit didn't want to wait for more philanthropic donations to start disbursing the funding. People need the help right now, she said, pointing out that a family that came to Sacred Heart on Friday seeking assistance had just $3 in their bank account.
Looking back on her 25-year career assisting those in poverty, Loving said the coronavirus poses an unprecedented challenge. The people who need help number in at least the tens of thousands, many of them workers in the gig economy, retail and food services who simply don't have the option to work from home.
"The scale and the enormity of the need is deeply concerning to me," she said. "I think that we have a looming financial catastrophe, and we are on the edge of just starting to understand what that is going to mean for the vulnerable families who live here."
Destination: Home is already working on ways to raise money and inject more funding into the now-depleted assistance program, including corporate donors and private, individual donations on its website. Meanwhile, local jurisdictions including Mountain View are launching their own relief programs for city residents.
The good news is that the eviction moratorium gives nonprofits and public agencies more time to assist families in need, but there is still a sense of urgency. A family making only $25,000 a year isn't going to be able to recover when unpaid rent piles up as high as $6,000 or $8,000, she said.
"Let's not let people get three months in arrears, because that is going to be insurmountable for many people," she said.
For Mountain View, a push and pull between landlords and tenants
Mountain View's local eviction moratorium, which the City Council passed unanimously on Friday, doesn't differ much from the county's own ordinance, with many council members citing a need to stay consistent or risk confusing landlords and tenants trying to navigate the emergency rules on rent.
But throughout the meeting, there was an ever-present tension between what rules are fair to the landlords and the tenants. City staff originally sought to give renters 30 days after rent is due to inform landlords that they can't pay rent due to financial hardship, but later reneged and suggested three days would suffice. City Attorney Krishan Chopra said the decision was made to match other cities and "provide more equitable consideration to landlords." Council members ultimately landed on a compromise with a seven-day grace period.
City staff also initially recommended a 180-day grace period between the end of the moratorium and the due date for unpaid rent, which was later scaled back to 120 days to be consistent with the county.
Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said she wanted to include language in the moratorium that requires tenants and landlords to come up with a repayment plan, avoiding a situation where tenants would hold off on paying back rent until the final deadline in September. If no agreement is made, she said there should be a "default" requirement for tenants to pay back rent in four equal installments spaced out during that 120-day period.
"I feel like during this time when everyone is struggling -- we might have different struggles but everyone is struggling -- that good communication and setting expectations and having a good understanding of where we all are is helpful to both parties," Matichak said.
Requiring commercial or residential tenants to pay rent early may not be permitted. The county's ordinance supersedes local city ordinances unless they are "more protective of residential and commercial tenants," and mandatory early payments appear to be in violation.
Chopra did not comment directly on the legality of Matichak's proposal, conceding that the county ordinance is vague on the topic. Attorney Karen Tiedemann, said the idea would create confusion, and could lead to challenges from tenants.
"If you changed it to require four equal payments, we conceivably could have tenants claiming they're entitled to the benefit of the county ordinance and landlords claiming they're entitled to the city ordinance, and you've created kind of a muddle for both parties."
Councilman Chris Clark said he couldn't support the idea, and that every person affected by the virus is going to have a different situation. Some renters may not be able to start working until one or two months into the moratorium being lifted, and may need the flexibility to pay back the money.
"I do appreciate the sentiment of trying to avoid situations where someone pays the entire back rent on day 119, but I care much more about not being the only city in the county that requires equal payments," he said.