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For the third time during the pandemic, California legislators have pushed off a huge, looming question to the last minute: Will the state shield tenants from eviction?
The answer, most likely, is yes, but for how long and under what terms is still up in the air. Several lawmakers told CalMatters a decision could come late this week — only days before current protections are set to expire, after June 30.
Rental assistance is the key here: The state has been doling out $2.6 billion it's sitting on at a snail's pace, while figuring out what to do with an additional $2.6 billion from the federal government.
Since Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature passed the last round of eviction protections in late January, the state has distributed only about $50 million of its $1.4 billion pot, and received applications for only about half of that money. While centralized data is unavailable for the cities' and counties' $1.2 billion share, there are similar reports of a slow rollout. Key legislators are concerned about ending eviction protections before the bulk of those dollars have entered the pockets of the Californians who need it most, so they're mostly hammering out new rules on eligibility and applications to make sure more rent relief gets out quicker.
"It doesn't make sense to allow evictions, when there are still billions of dollars available that could prevent those very evictions," said Assemblymember David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who leads the Assembly Housing Committee and helped craft the original eviction moratorium last year.
But the deal-making to extend the eviction moratorium has been slow and secretive. Tenant and landlord groups told CalMatters they have been shut out of negotiations, which are taking place between Assembly and Senate leaders and the governor's office — similar to the last two rounds of negotiations.
"Policymakers have been pulled in many directions, but I'm hopeful that the right conversations are happening, and we're going to make progress before June 30," Chiu said.
Lawmakers will have to wait 72 hours from the time they get a bill on paper before taking a vote and getting something to the governor. Here are some key decision points that will determine the fate of thousands and thousands of California renters.
That question is at the heart of the debate. Tenant advocates want to extend protections for as long as possible, while landlord groups want the opposite.
Brian Augusta, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the tenant side has asked the state to tie the end date to distribution of all available rental relief funds — which at the current pace would take several months, at least.
"In my mind, it would be a travesty to end these eviction protections before we get every dollar out the door," Augusta said.
Landlord advocates are concerned about the same issue, but want protections to end by September.
"We'd rather not have an extension at all, but we need to get the money out," said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the California Apartment Association. "That's our number one focus. If that means a short, short-term extension, so be it. But the focus has to be on getting the money out."
Another point of contention: The association wants the law to protect from eviction only those who have applied and are eligible for funds, while tenant advocates want blanket protections that also cover those who have struggled to learn about and apply for the program.
Augusta, on the tenants' side, is fearful that sunsetting the protections while the Legislature is out of session — between Sept. 10 and Jan. 3 — would mean no one will be around to reassess and fix the rent relief program.
Another timeline tenant advocates are pushing is to link protections to an improved economy with lower unemployment.
"The concept is: Do people have their jobs back? Because if people don't have their jobs back, they're not going to be able to pay rent," said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for Tenants Together, a statewide advocacy coalition. "It's not rocket science."
While the state has now reopened and life in California is returning to normal for many, many employees in lower-wage sectors are still out of work. Last month, CalMatters reported California still has the nation's second-highest unemployment rate and has regained only 48% of jobs lost amid the pandemic.
"While the economy is coming back, there are still millions of struggling families, and we need to make sure that they're not going to be evicted while there's still money available to help them," Chiu said.
The most recent round of rent relief allowed landlords to collect aid totaling 80% of unpaid rent through March 2021, as long as they forgave the rest. If a landlord turned down that deal, the tenant could collect 25% of the rent owed and have the rest of the debt relegated to small claims court.
Tenants have argued that the formula gave them the short end of the stick, should landlords choose to turn down the money. The 25% payment guaranteed only that a renter wouldn't be evicted, but could still saddle them with debt.
In his May budget proposal, which legislators are now hashing out, Newsom called for state dollars to cover the full amount of missed rent — a proposal both the tenant and landlord groups have welcomed.
Newsom also suggested that money could go directly to tenants — as opposed to waiting until landlords accept the aid. That's something the landlord groups are less than thrilled about.
"We think there will be huge abuse," said Carlton, from the Apartments Association.
Chiu said the money could only be used to pay rental debt: "The two implications from that are: The landlord would not have to forgive any of that debt, and the tenant would receive coverage for everything that they owe."
Under the current protections, tenants who had moved out to save on rent were ineligible for relief, because it was designed only to keep current tenants housed. Advocates are hopeful that will change in the new bill.
Another gaping loophole: Will people who took out loans from friends, banks, or payday lenders qualify for the money, as it isn't a direct debt to the landlord? That remains to be seen.
The existing moratorium laid out several ways the $2.6 billion would reach residents: The state would distribute it; cities or counties could do it themselves using the state's rules; or the jurisdiction could distribute its share of federal dollars with its own rules, and let the state distribute the rest.
In all, the state was responsible for $1.4 billion. It has distributed a little more than $50 million to about 4,400 families, and received requests for about $616 million, according to data provided to CalMatters by the state's Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.
By contrast, an analysis by PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research group, suggests that about 758,000 households in California are behind on rent, and owe a total of $3.5 billion. A newly released survey by the Terner Center at UC Berkeley — of 8,605 families renting from one of the state's biggest nonprofit affordable housing developers — found that the number of tenants who couldn't pay rent more than doubled during the pandemic, with Black and single-parent households hit hardest.
So why the disconnect between the need and the response? A recent survey of 177 tenant advocates found several culprits: trouble applying in languages other than English and Spanish, a lack of digital proficiency, and difficulty gathering documentation to prove eligibility for the relief.
The state pledged this month to address those issues, with eased documentation requirements and expanded language availability for the application.
Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, said the daily average of people applying for rent relief skyrocketed by 70% the week of June 11, when his agency simplified the application.
"So it's working," he said.
But Singh identified another reason for the slow rollout: "A lot of the burden of the outreach basically is on structurally underfunded and understaffed community organizations, and so a lot of people just don't know" that rent relief is available.
In cities that handled their own rent relief funds, including San Francisco, programs got underway less than a month ago, because they were working out who would be eligible for their limited funds.
Riverside County also came up with its own rules, but earlier in the process, and decided tenants and landlords would get 100% of the rent owed — as some lawmakers are hoping to replicate at the statewide level.
Compared to the $50 million in relief to 4,400 households in the state's program, the county has sent more than $21 million to about 2,600 households, according to Mike Walsh, deputy director at the Riverside County Housing Authority, where applications exceed available dollars. He has a different ask for the Legislature: "Can you just please make this simple?"
Walsh said that he's heard that landlords' attorneys were not thrilled with the state's 80% deal, so it took effort to get the word out that the Riverside County program was different. But as soon as the county runs out of funds, the state is supposed to step in with its own program. Walsh hopes for some streamlining to avoid the confusion of separate rent relief efforts with changing rules.
Tenant advocates say that the current eviction protections aren't really a moratorium because evictions have been ongoing. Singh, from Tenants Together, said her organization has been flooded with more calls this year than in the organization's 13-year history. It brought on two more staff members just to handle calls.
The group's staffers, volunteers and lawyers say they have seen an uptick in informal evictions brought on by landlord harassment and legal cases over nuisances and renovations. That's because the law only prevented landlords from kicking out tenants over missed rent.
"There should be additional protections to protect tenants from eviction, period, because we know that there's lots and lots of other ways that people can be forced out," Singh said.
For weeks, her organization has heard of pre-emptive threats of eviction: "Come July 1, you're gone," she said tenants have reported their landlords telling them. She hopes the Legislature will change that.