As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, a coalition of local groups is pushing the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to strengthen protections for renters facing eviction during the pandemic.
The Alliance for a Just Recovery, Sonoma County Democratic Party and others have called for changes to the county’s current eviction rules, including guaranteeing tenants facing eviction access to a lawyer, changing the county’s eviction ordinance to prohibit all evictions during the pandemic except those deemed necessary for public health and safety, and extending the timeline for tenants to repay their debts after the pandemic ends.
At their Tuesday, Jan. 5 meeting, the supervisors directed staff to prepare some action items for their Jan. 26 meeting. Several supervisors also voiced hopes that state and federal governments would take action on the issue in the intervening weeks.
Throughout the pandemic, millions of unemployed people nationwide have been unable to pay rent, in turn leading some landlords to struggle to pay their bills. A series of local, state and federal orders have slowed the rate of evictions, as health officials and tenant advocates warned that evictions would increase the spread of Covid-19.
“Eviction is likely to increase Covid-19 infection rates because it results in overcrowded living environments, doubling up, limited access to healthcare, and a decreased ability to comply with pandemic mitigation strategies like social distancing,” a county staff report from the supervisors’ Jan. 5 meeting states.
Despite the warnings, data from the Sonoma County Superior Court indicates that the rate of evictions increased dramatically late last year after a statewide order lapsed.
In the early days of the pandemic, the state Judicial Council halted all eviction proceedings in county courts throughout the state, unless a landlord could prove the eviction was a matter of health and safety. On Sept. 1, that order lapsed, leaving tenants with a patchwork of protections from state and local governments.
Under the state law and Sonoma County regulations, landlords are still allowed to evict tenants for a variety of reasons not directly related to a tenant’s inability to pay due to Covid-19.
While a county staff report cites “anecdotal information” that many landlords and tenants are coming to agreements outside of court, attorneys at Legal Aid of Sonoma County say some landlords are attempting to make use of the loopholes in the current state and local laws.
“Landlords are filing eviction cases based on frivolous ‘nuisance’ allegations and minor lease violations—like taking in a family member who is not on the lease, having a pet or parking in a handicapped parking spot,” Suzanne Dershowitz, a housing attorney with Legal Aid of Sonoma County, told the Bohemian. “No-fault evictions, like owner move-in, are also moving forward again. In some cases, our clients have been served with notice after notice based on different causes; the landlord is hoping one will stick.”
Indeed, during the 147 days between April 6 and Sept. 1 that the Judicial Council’s order was in effect, 53 residential eviction cases were filed in the Sonoma County Superior Court. During the 93 days between Sept. 2 and Dec. 3, 117 residential eviction cases were filed, according to figures provided by Legal Aid and cited in the county’s staff report.
The rate of cases filed per day more than tripled from 0.36 per day under the Judicial Council order to 1.26 per day after the order expired.
A North Bay representative of the California Apartment Association did not return a request for comment.
At their meeting, supervisors voiced interest in some of the proposed changes to the local Covid-19 eviction protections and directed county staff to return with options for action on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
One policy pushed by advocates is guaranteeing tenants facing eviction the right to legal representation, often referred to as a “right to counsel” policy.
In Sonoma County, around 50 percent of tenants facing eviction in court do not have legal representation, says Ronit Rubinoff, the executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, one of the organizations which provides legal services for local tenants.
Rubinoff points out that cities around the country started to pass right to counsel laws well before the pandemic.
“I think it’s interesting to look at the inequities between the civil and criminal system when it comes to access to justice,” Rubinoff said. “It’s really high time that we consider the loss of your home as something as profound as some of the other [legal] consequences meted out in criminal proceedings where people are guaranteed a right to counsel.”
At their Jan. 5 meeting, several supervisors voiced support for possible changes to the local ordinance, including providing tenants with a right to counsel.
State lawmakers are working on a bill to extend a current state law which protects tenants who lost income due to Covid-19. The new law, Assembly Bill 15, would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants who suffered financial hardship from the pandemic through Dec. 31, 2021. Renters would have until then to pay 25 percent of the back rent they have accumulated since September 2020 to avoid being evicted in 2022. Under the current state law, the repayment deadline is Jan. 31—although Sonoma County tenants are given until April 30 due to the county’s ordinance.
A Dec. 18 report by the Bay Area Equity Atlas, produced with the Sonoma County–based North Bay Organizing Project, estimates that 7,000 Sonoma County households, including 5,100 children, are at “imminent risk of eviction and homelessness if the county’s eviction moratorium is lifted.”
The report warns that an additional 4,400 households are at risk of eviction if a weekly unemployment benefit included in the CARES Act, the federal stimulus bill passed last March, is allowed to expire. Those federal benefits did, in fact, expire in late December, but were replaced by an additional $300 in weekly unemployment benefits through mid-March, 2021.
Most Sonoma County tenants who are in debt may not be at immediate risk of eviction since the current county order will stay in effect until 60 days after the county declares the pandemic over. That said, without additional economic assistance, many tenants will remain in debt long after the pandemic is over.
A county staff report states that, according to “conservative estimates,” 6,175 tenants are racking up an estimated bill of $8.3 million in unpaid rent debt per month—an ever-growing bill which the county would be hard pressed to cover on its own.
The most recent federal stimulus package, passed in late December, includes $25 billion for rent debt relief. However, some estimates put the real need closer to $70 billion, Bloomberg News reported in December.
EDITOR’S NOTE, JAN. 13: Paragraphs 2 and 20 have been updated to more accurately reflect the groups’ requests and the details of a current state law.