With the end of a state eviction protection law fast approaching, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, March 22, directed staff to request additional relief funds for tenants and landlords financially impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Board members also spoke about holding a more in-depth discussion about extending or amending local pandemic eviction regulations, but did not set a date.
The topic of eviction protections has once again become pressing because some state regulations established by Assembly Bill 832 will expire at the end of March. In the absence of state protections, California tenants will be left to rely on local laws, which vary by county.
Sonoma County’s Just Cause protections, passed early in the pandemic, are set to end on June 30, but could be extended or otherwise altered by the board of supervisors.
Under AB 832, tenants who apply for rent relief money between Oct. 1, 2021 and March 30, 2022, are protected from eviction until a decision is made about whether they are eligible to receive funds. Under the county’s Just Cause ordinance, tenants are shielded from most evictions unless their landlord decides to take a property off the rental market, the tenant poses an “imminent threat to health or safety” or the tenant falls behind on rent for a reason unrelated to Covid-19.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
“It’s hard to believe that anyone would be confused by any of this,” Supervisor Chris Coursey quipped during the meeting after hearing a report from a county attorney.
Indeed, the framework of overlapping eviction protections set up in the first months of the pandemic quickly became dizzyingly complicated. Depending on a home’s location, an eviction case could be impacted by interlocking federal, state, county and city ordinances, all of which have different expiration dates.
Local rent relief programs have also proven difficult to access for many tenants and landlords financially impacted by the pandemic.
According to a staff report, Sonoma County, working with local nonprofits, has distributed $26.5 million to 2,193 applicants since launching its Emergency Rental Assistance Program last April.
However, nearly a year after the program began, many applicants are still waiting for funds while the county prioritizes distributing funds to applicants with very low incomes, currently considered below $34,000 for a family of four.
At the time of the March 22 board meeting, 3,872 applicants were still waiting for funds, although the county had only $16.6 million left to distribute.
“If we assume that the typical assistance per household in 2022 is about $8,500, then the current caseload may create an over subscription of about $8 million,” a county staff report states.
Because of the concern that the remaining ERAP funds will not cover the wait list of applicants, the county stopped accepting new applications in mid-February.
On Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to allow Dave Kiff, the interim director of the county’s community development commission, to apply for an additional $20 million in leftover state and federal rent relief funds. If approved, the cash infusion would allow the county to fulfill more applicants’ requests, potentially reducing the severity of a long-feared wave of evictions.
Margaret DeMatteo, a housing policy attorney at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, warned the supervisors at their meeting that the true risk may not become clear until the eviction protections begin to expire.
“The economic effect of the tenant protections is going to be felt more fully as they expire. We have all sorts of folks, including undocumented individuals and families unable to access ERAP, that were otherwise protected from eviction by local and state price gouging gaps in the local Just Cause moratorium. As these diminish, the stability of our local recovery is going to be upset,” DeMatteo said during the meeting’s public comment period.
DeMatteo urged the board to either amend the county’s current eviction protections or pass new legislation “that ensures economic stability for tenants.”
During the board’s discussion, supervisor Coursey raised similar concerns about the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic.
“My feeling is that we are far from through with this crisis. Even if the immediate health crisis is gone, the economic crisis is going to continue for a while. There are a lot of people who are still dealing with that and will be going into the future,” Coursey said. “My question is, how do we, as a board, get to the place where we can look at options to deal with rent non-payment and Just Cause evictions and other tenant protections continuing after some of these protections otherwise would expire?”
Board of Supervisors Chair James Gore voiced support for scheduling a more in-depth conversation about future eviction regulations, including gathering more input from landlord and tenant groups. Staff did not announce the date of that discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.
For what it’s worth, Sonoma County, which opted to operate its own rent relief program instead of participating in the state’s, is hardly alone in struggling to distribute rent relief funding quickly enough to meet demands. In early March, the National Equity Atlas published a report on California’s statewide program’s progress distributing rent relief funds.
The report, based on records obtained from the state agency managing the program, found that only a third of applicants had received payment a year into the program. On average, applicants waited an average of 92 days before hearing whether they were eligible for ERAP funds. It took applicants who were approved another 21 days to receive payment from the state.
Approximately 271,000 California households were still waiting for the state to process their applications, although the state eviction protections are set to expire next week.