At her Antioch kitchen table blanketed with eviction notices and anti-anxiety medication, Carmen Ponce was once again terrified of ending up living in her car with her daughter and granddaughter.
“I want to go with dignity,” Ponce said in Spanish. “I don’t want to go because they ran me out, because they kicked me out as if I was worthless.”
The details of their cases vary, but all three renters and their families are part of a wave of eviction disputes hitting ill-prepared California suburbs in an uncertain new phase of the pandemic. While nearby cities like San Francisco and Oakland have some of the nation’s strongest tenant protections, gaps in state law, shifting patterns of housing segregation and the economic shock of the pandemic are causing havoc in outlying areas.
In recent weeks, routine city council meetings in San Pablo and Antioch have morphed into proxy wars between powerful statewide tenant and landlord groups. High-profile eviction cases in Palo Alto and Walnut Creek have triggered behind-the-scenes pressure on local officials to intervene. Tenants are also banding together in suburbs like Concord, as national calls grow to address stark racial gaps in evictions and increase the less than 10% of evicted U.S. tenants who have access to a lawyer.
For housing researchers like Tim Thomas, the suburban sprawl of Bay Area landlord-tenant disputes is a natural evolution of years of rising rents pushing people out of big cities. Now, he said, Black and Latino renters disproportionately moving away from cities like San Francisco and Oakland are at the highest risk of eviction in the increasingly segregated suburbs where many sought more affordable rents — areas that traditionally have fewer local eviction laws, pro bono lawyers and tenant activists.
“You have to break new ground, basically, in those areas,” said Thomas, research director of UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project. “I think that will be kind of the narrative we hear now — a lot more activism in spaces and cities we’ve never heard of.”
As more evictions resume, Mendoza, Chakmakchi and Ponce face different legal paths and timelines to find new homes. Their stories show how two years of concerns about a potential pandemic eviction cliff are coming to a head in suburbs struggling to keep up.
Since moving to the Bay Area from the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1990, Mendoza’s life has revolved around the Porto Apartments, specifically her $450-a-month one-bedroom covered in family photos and lush houseplants. That’s where Mendoza, 55, raised a daughter, came home after church choir practice and relaxed after work as a senior caretaker until she was sidelined by back and shoulder injuries three years ago.
Things have been tense at the 14-unit building behind a busy Italian restaurant since its owner bought the entire property a few years ago. Several neighbors left, Mendoza’s attorney said in a recent letter to the San Pablo City Council, when the new owner served 30-day eviction notices in 2019. For Mendoza and a half dozen others who stayed, the letter said the situation escalated in November, when they got 60-day notices saying they had to be out by mid-January to make way for renovations — though they were welcome to come back and pay the new rent at roughly triple the current rate.
“We’re thinking about other places, but it’s too high,” Mendoza said. “I’m thinking about it all the time.”
Mendoza’s landlord didn’t respond to a request for comment but said at a contentious city meeting last month that he was attempting to remedy a “substandard” building. At the Jan. 18 meeting, the City Council voted down an urgency ordinance that would have temporarily halted evictions to allow for the city to craft permanent limits on so-called “substantial rehabilitation” evictions, where under state law landlords may ask tenants to leave during renovations and then increase rents.
“We have to consider whether or not we want to make San Pablo a place that developers do not want to come to build apartment complexes,” San Pablo Mayor Rita Xavier said as she voted against the urgency ordinance. “That’s very important. We do not want to turn them off.”
The political clash in San Pablo illustrates how tenant groups can struggle to gain power even in a city where two-thirds of residents are renters. The California Apartment Association’s Rhovy Lyn Antonio said at the meeting that “any perceived loopholes” in a 2019 state law limiting evictions where a tenant is not at fault and capping rent increases at around 10% annually were “intentional in order to strike a difficult balance.”
But tenant advocates warn that if cities don’t act to close loopholes, evictions will accelerate as pandemic restrictions ease. A Chronicle analysis of limited eviction data on Contra Costa County sheriff lockouts — the last step in the minority of cases that go through a formal process — shows that lockouts surged 90% during the second year of the pandemic, from 184 lockouts in March-December 2020 to 349 during the same period in 2021.
In San Pablo, tenant advocates representing Mendoza and her neighbors from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, better known as ACCE, argue that city officials overstated resources available to tenants with nowhere to go.
“This is why it’s so problematic that the state didn’t do a better job on this,” said ACCE legal director Leah Simon-Weisberg. “With some of these small communities, they’re completely incapable of understanding this stuff, and there’s so much misinformation.”
Mendoza’s landlord, local restaurant owner Martin Gonzalez, also noted the costly gaps in current housing policies. While city officials touted a program to pay a relocation fee to tenants in properties deemed uninhabitable, Gonzalez said at the city meeting that his property was in need of updates but not bad enough to be eligible for city funding. He waived three months of rent this winter, he said, as a way for longtime renters like Mendoza to find another place while he embarks on renovations and tries to make the money back.
“I am following protocol and getting permits,” Gonzalez said. “I cannot bring the apartments up to code without raising rent.”
For Mendoza, the savings on three months of below-market-rate rent still aren’t enough to afford a deposit — let alone the going East Bay rent — for a new apartment on her fixed income. But she’s more worried than ever after she was served a formal eviction lawsuit, called an unlawful detainer, the day after the disappointing city meeting for her and her neighbors.
“We live day-to-day here,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen.”
It was late September when Chakmakchi got the first ominous email from the property manager at the $2,500-a-month Palo Alto two-bedroom that he shared with his young daughter.
“Wanted to drop a quick note to let you know your lease will NOT be renewed when it expires in November,” the agent wrote, according to copies provided by Chakmakchi. “You will need to find a new place. I’m so sorry to give you this news.”
He wrote back the next day: “Is that legal?”
So began Chakmakchi’s odyssey through what tenant attorneys say is a spike in a hard-to-track wave of “involuntary displacement,” where tenants aren’t served formal eviction court papers, but rather letters or notices telling them they need to move. No government agency tracks these informal notices, and even for cases that do make it to court, data reporting lags and confidentiality rules make it difficult to understand how many people are being evicted at any given time.
“That’s the biggest problem with this whole thing,” Thomas said. “It’s such a black box.”
In Chakmakchi’s case, advocates with the Palo Alto Renters’ Association appealed to local politicians to halt evictions during the omicron wave of the pandemic. But a state law passed last year prevents cities from enacting new local eviction moratoriums after a California-wide ban ended in the fall.
Alameda County is one of the few California jurisdictions that enacted a stronger local eviction ban, which tenant groups cite as a model for keeping people in marginalized areas housed, but landlords argue has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare.
Political fights over eviction rules and rent control have flared up in expensive Silicon Valley suburbs like Mountain View and Redwood City during the last decade’s tech boom. While the City Council in Palo Alto has expressed support for measures including requiring landlords of large buildings to compensate evicted tenants, renters in smaller properties like Chakmakchi’s ex-triplex are still often on their own.
Email records show that after Chakmakchi consulted a lawyer and disputed his landlord’s choice to not renew his lease, Chakmakchi received a 60-day notice informing him that the landlord intended to renovate the home for visiting family members. State exemptions allow owners to evict tenants for renovations, to take the property off the market or to allow family members to move in. Landlords Mark and Trina Whiteley did not respond to requests for comment.
Facing a Jan. 28 move-out date, Chakmakchi tried more lawyers and mediation, asking the landlord to extend the lease at least through the end of the school year. When that failed and winter break passed while Chakmakchi was contending with a coronavirus infection, he tried not to panic.
His annual teaching contract had not yet been renewed and his savings dipped during the pandemic, he said, leaving him worried he’d end up sleeping in his van while his 7-year-old stayed with family.
“It’s just people who don’t care about people,” Chakmakchi said. “Everything’s just business.”
With legal and political appeals exhausted, tenant advocates started a GoFundMe for Chakmakchi in late January that quickly raised more than $20,000. Amid the outpouring, two local residents offered to rent him their properties, first an extra unit that he’s moved into as a stopgap, then a two-bedroom rental where he and his daughter plan to move in mid-February.
“It all came together,” he said. “I got so lucky.”
By last February, when her Concord salon reopened after months of on-and-off pandemic closures, Ponce thought she’d finally have a chance to catch up on rent.
And then disaster struck outside the $1,295-a-month Antioch one-bedroom she shares with her adult son, 17-year-old daughter and 1-year-old granddaughter.
Ponce was inside enjoying a day off, she remembers, when a car pulled up and two men started shooting behind her apartment building. Terrified that her son and granddaughter were outside, Ponce ran out. She was hit by four bullets and fell to the ground before being rushed to the hospital to begin a long recovery.
“I couldn’t work,” Ponce recalled. “That put me even farther behind.”
She’s now back at work as a barber, but Ponce said the pressure from her landlord has increased since then. First, she received a 60-day eviction notice that she keeps in a folder with records of text messages and phone calls from her landlord, plus a letter about parking issues threatening disciplinary action, including eviction. In late January, she received another three-day eviction notice for nonpayment of rent.
Though Ponce and her property manager are now at odds, they both say the case is an example of how landlord-tenant relationships have gone haywire while waiting for answers from California’s unprecedented $5.2 billion COVID-19 rent relief program. Ponce’s records show her landlord has received payment for about one-third of the roughly $15,000 she owes in back rent.
With tension mounting, she’s aligned with ACCE to fight the eviction and appeal to city officials for stronger local tenant laws. In late January, after Ponce and other tenants and landlords spoke at a city meeting, the Antioch City Council voted to draft new ordinances to bar landlords’ harassment of tenants, and to limit the reasons landlords can evict tenants.
“A lot of these policies, if you’re doing everything right, it’s really not going to have that much of an impact on you,” said Antioch City Council Member Monica Wilson. “This is something that we need to tackle, and we need to face it head-on.”
Among the evidence that tenant advocates have cited amid calls for more intervention from local governments in suburbs like Antioch is an analysis of sheriff eviction lockout data by the Urban Displacement Project and KQED. They found that from March 19, 2020, to July 31, 2021, more evictions happened in heavily suburban Santa Clara County (441 eviction lockouts), Contra Costa County (372) and Solano County (234) than larger urban jurisdictions with stronger local laws in San Francisco (113) and Alameda County (80).
With Antioch’s debate about new tenant protections still in the early stages, uncertainty is also mounting for Ponce’s property manager, Antioch real estate veteran Bob Gunson. He said that his three-person team’s workload has tripled and that it’s been “a nightmare” to keep track of a dozen state rent relief applications among the 140 units he manages in Antioch, Concord, Brentwood and Oakley.
Gunson said the latest eviction notice to Ponce was a “wake-up call” for her to follow up on state rent relief funds. She says she did, setting up a standoff playing out in many other buildings around the Bay Area.
“It’s up to the tenant,” Gunson said. “If they are willing to work with us and get caught up, we’re not gonna run them out. There will be some where we don’t have a choice.”
Until the pandemic, Ponce, 40, said she’d never missed a rent payment since moving to the East Bay from the Sonoran border town of Nogales at 17. Her closest call with eviction came in August, when the 60-day notice arrived and Ponce said she started packing and preparing to move into her car until a tenant advocate advised her to stay and fight.
She’s still in an uncomfortable limbo as her home city debates what to do and the state weighs her rent relief application. Until then, she prays that no more eviction notices will appear on her door.
“It’s sad and it’s frustrating,” Ponce said, “to be in a place that doesn’t want you.”
Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @LAHepler