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An eviction moratorium extension and $2.6 billion in rental relief overwhelmingly passed both chambers of California's legislature on Thursday amid questions from legislators over the efficacy of the state's rollout plan and the equity of the money's distribution among small, rural areas.
The state's eviction moratorium will be extended until June 30 if signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who supported the legislation during last-minute negotiations among legislative leaders, tenant associations and the powerful California Apartment Association. (On Friday morning, Newsom announced that he signed the legislation.)
If the extension hadn't passed Thursday, the eviction moratorium would have expired on Jan. 31.
"We need to protect people right now," said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat. "The fact that there are many out there right now in the rain, the wind and cold weather suggests the size of the problem we face."
Estimates on the number of people at risk of eviction range from 240,000 households to 700,000 households, and state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, said the varying estimates means "nobody knows" the true scale of the back rent owed by tenants statewide.
"What's the size of the debt? Nobody knows," Hertzberg said. "We've got to extend it so people aren't thrown out. We have to act and we have to act now."
No senators voted against the eviction moratorium, but one assemblymember did, Sacramento Republican Kevin Kiley, who urged legislators to focus their time and money on creating jobs.
Despite a federal eviction moratorium that runs until the end of March, legislators were working to preserve the complicated and delicate framework of California's deal, which allowed those who have paid 25% of their rent during the pandemic to avoid eviction and owe the back rent as civil debt.
Converting back rent to civil debt means landlords can take their tenants to small claims court, but cannot evict them for the debt they owe.
Assemblymember Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat, said he was concerned that the implementation of SB 91 and SB 89, the two bills passed Thursday by both houses, would mirror the inequities of the rollout of federal pandemic-relief CARES Act funding.
"Smaller counties simply weren't treated equally," Wood said. "A lot more resources went to larger counties on a bet that some of those counties would have more outbreaks of coronavirus than they did, while some of the smaller counties had some of the highest rates in the state.
"In rural communities, we often get short shrift."
A January report from the state auditor found that counties with smaller populations received a disproportionately small amount of federal coronavirus aid, despite several smaller counties being hot spots of coronavirus outbreak.
The eviction moratorium extension was the subject of weeks of negotiations dating back to December. One of the principal points of contention was the income cutoff for assistance in the form of federal rental relief. The federal dollars can only be given to those making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI).
The CAA had proposed additional state funding to compensate landlords whose tenants owe them back rent and were between 80% and 150% of the AMI.
"I am hopeful that if for some reason, all folks within the 80% AMI category were taken care of, the Legislature will come back together and extend the reach of the relief, if there is money remaining," said Ted Mermin, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice. "There is work to be done before (the end of the moratorium in) June, especially looking forward to people's credit reports, getting them into new homes after the pandemic and their ability to handle the remaining debt."
Assemblymember Laurie Davies, a Laguna Niguel Republican, said mom-and-pop landlords didn't get enough relief in the legislation passed Thursday.
"I ask that we all keep in mind that the rent that they receive doesn't just go to pay the mortgage, but it also covers insurance, property taxes and maintenance," Davies said. "By only offering them an 80% recovery, many of them will have to hold off on maintaining the rental properties, which could easily become a safety issue to those we're trying to protect."
Support was overwhelming for the bill, however.
"I represent the sixth-poorest district in this state," said Assemblymember Mike Gipson, a Carson Democrat. "This bill is essential to protect all individuals in the state of California that are suffering from this pandemic.
"Members, understand this, it's not their fault."