Coronavirus: Q&A for Bay Area renters, landlords

Cities, counties and even California’s governor have rushed in to manage the fraught and frayed landlord-tenant relationship during the coronavirus pandemic.

The push for quick solutions to complex problems has left a patchwork of remedies for renters across the Bay Area. Nearly a month into shelter-in-place restrictions that shut businesses and left hundreds of thousands without jobs, the answers to many legal questions depend on where a renter is living.

We asked public interest and landlord attorneys to shed light on renters’ rights and responsibilities.

One thing is certain — the months ahead will be filled with more changes.

Do I have to pay rent?

None of the new legal protections for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic exempt tenants from paying rent, although they do modify how landlords may deal with those who don’t pay.

“No one is actually saying you have no obligation to pay rent,” said Nadia Aziz, directing attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. “To an extent that a tenant can pay rent, they should pay rent.”

Both landlords and renter advocates suggest tenants speak to their landlords if they’ve lost income, fallen ill, or are taking care of family members because of the pandemic. In some cases, tenants are required to show proof — a letter from an employer, a recent pay stub or a medical note to get relief.

The San Jose City Council considered a measure to suspend rents — an effort that would have left unpaid rent in legal limbo — but the proposal was rejected. A few tenants’ rights organizations have advocated rent strikes, but the movement has not yet gained widespread momentum.

Can I be evicted  for failing to pay rent (or for any other reason)?

Broadly, residents suffering loss of income, illness, or increased caretaking responsibilities cannot be put on the street during the coronavirus emergency. Federal, state and local governments have all acknowledged that keeping people in shelter is good for the overall community health.

Tenants can still face eviction for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.

Will tenants unable to pay rent because of the pandemic face eviction after the emergency lifts?

Gov. Gavin Newsom last month granted cities and counties the power to pass emergency ordinances to curb evictions. Newsom later enacted a limited measure that stops physical evictions during the emergency — but still allows landlords to file paperwork to start the eviction process on delinquent tenants.

But last week, the Judicial Council of California, the body charged with setting policy for state courts, passed an emergency measure halting court action on evictions and foreclosures. The order stops evictions from going forward for 90 days after the state of emergency ends. The new city and county laws generally assume an end date in April or May but are subject to change. The only exceptions are for health and safety. Eviction cases already underway in the courts can be delayed at least 60 days.

“For the most part, everything has been put on hold,” said Whitney Prout, policy and compliance attorney for the California Apartment Association or CAA.

More than 100 cities and counties across the state have implemented bans on evictions, according to the CAA. The renter protections vary in scope — some require more strict proof of loss of income, others extend rights over a longer period. A more protective local ordinance for renters generally trumps state and county laws.

The local laws could affect court decisions after the emergency has lifted and the judicial moratorium has ended.

The majority of the nine Bay Area counties have passed tenant protections: Alameda, Marin, Sonoma, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Contra Costa, San Benito and Napa counties have not enhanced rental laws.

San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco and Concord, along with several smaller Bay Area cities, have placed moratoriums on evictions at least through the emergency. Late fees for unpaid rent are mostly prohibited.

Residents living in housing backed by certain federal loans or receiving rental vouchers are also protected.

What happens when the emergency orders lift and I owe months of back rent?

Several cities and counties have enacted grace periods for tenants to repay back rent after the emergency ends. Oakland does not specify a deadline, while Santa Clara County residents get 120 days. In Concord and Pittsburg, tenants have been given six months after the emergency has lifted.

Hilda Chan, senior attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid, said the concern is how the courts will handle renter-landlord disputes in different cities when the emergency order ends. “It’s a complete smorgasbord of varying ordinances,” she said.

My landlord asked me to sign a repayment schedule. What should I do?

Tenant lawyers recommend checking with an attorney before signing. Most tenants don’t know when they will get back to work or how long the emergency will last.

Property owners favor a payment schedule to bring certainty in uncertain times. “So there’s not any confusion down the road,” Prout said.

What other resources are available?

Legal aid clinics, and city and county websites provide specific details about renter protections.

Bay Area Legal Aid, with offices across the region, has a collection of lawyers and translators to communicate the sometimes complicated issues in several languages. Their legal aid line, (800) 551-5554, can provide advice for many common landlord-tenant issues.

The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley provides pro bono advice for Santa Clara County residents. It also offers multilingual services and a housing hotline, (408) 280-2424, for worried residents.

Several landlord associations offer guidance for property owners on reaching tenants and arranging repayment schedules. CAA regularly updates a list of local tenant protections.

It’s also important to keep up with the news. State lawmakers have proposed several measures to help renters, who make up 45 percent of Californians. One bill would enact a broad ban on evictions and foreclosures throughout the emergency, allow courts to set up repayment schedules, and in certain circumstances give tenants through March 2021 to pay back rent.

Property owners have lobbied for rent grants to help tenants, as well as property tax deferments and credits for landlords.

Other cities and counties have been adopting and updating policies as the pandemic has caused more unemployment and economic stress.  “These are crazy times,” said Prout. “I don’t really look more than an hour or two into the future.”

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