The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to strengthen the county’s protections for renters for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new protections will still allow landlords to evict tenants based on health and safety concerns, threats of violence by a tenant, or in order to remove a unit or building from the rental market in compliance with state laws.
Citing concerns about a lack of in-depth information about the leading causes of evictions in the county, the supervisors on Tuesday also directed county staff to report back on how the county can better to track evictions in order to inform future board actions.
Housing advocates and health officials have argued throughout the pandemic that evictions will worsen the spread of Covid-19 because displaced renters are likely to move in with family and friends or become homeless.
Supervisor Chris Coursey called the county’s updated eviction rules “a necessary tool in our fight against Covid.”
“We need to do everything in our power to get this pandemic under control. It’s gonna take all of us. This is not about demonizing landlords, or giving free rent to tenants. It’s asking simply for a temporary halt to most evictions,” Coursey said during the meeting. “We’re creating a policy to help people and keep people in their homes because we’re in this extraordinary time.”
Property owners’ advocates at the meeting pressed the supervisors to follow the state’s existing laws instead of increasing the county’s regulations, raising concerns about what they see as excessive restrictions on property owners. Tenant advocates pushed the supervisors to pass a policy exempting only evictions based on health and safety concerns, preventing landlords from evicting tenants in order to remove a property from the rental market.
Supervisors Chris Coursey and Susan Gorin voiced support for the stronger protections but ultimately agreed to compromise on the second strongest option since the item needed 4/5th approval.
The supervisors did not discuss in depth the mounting rent debt that some renters and landlords are dealing with in Sonoma County and across the country as a result of skyrocketing unemployment rates. However, the county plans to distribute $14 million to local landlords and renters as soon as the federal funds for the program are available.
Data obtained from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office by the Bohemian shows that the rate of evictions notices issued in the county decreased dramatically last year from the pre-pandemic rate.
In the last nine months of 2019, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office served approximately 400 eviction notices, according to data obtained by the Bohemian. Due to pandemic restrictions, Sheriff’s deputies only served 64 in the same time period in 2020.
However, the rate of eviction notices issued in Sonoma County remained among the highest in the Bay Area during the pandemic, likely because other nearby counties issued stronger restrictions on evictions in the early months of the pandemic.
On Jan. 27, KQED reported that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had issued the third highest number of eviction notices out of any of the nine Bay Area counties between March 19 and Dec. 31, 2020. Sonoma County ranked fourth highest for the rate of eviction notices served per 100,000 renters of the nine Bay Area counties during the same time period.
The caveat to all of the available data is that many evictions happen outside of court or never involve the Sheriff’s Office, which generally only gets involved as a final step once a court has ruled in favor of a landlord.
Furthermore, the data from the Sheriff’s Office and cited by KQED does not show why tenants were evicted, whether it was because a landlord cited health and safety concerns, a tenant failed to pay on time, or for any number of other reasons.
Citing this lack of information during Tuesday’s meeting, several supervisors expressed support for increasing the county’s efforts to track evictions and the impacts of the policy they just passed.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board chair, joined other supervisors in asking county staff to explore “opportunities to track in real time, if our policy is doing what we hope it will.”
Supervisor Susan Gorin asked staff to revisit a now-defunct county program known as Sonoma County Rental Information and Mediation Services (SCRIMS). The program, which state nonprofit records indicate was active in the early 2000s, collected information about evictions and mediated conflicts between tenants and property owners.
“We need to know the statistics about what is happening here in Sonoma County. And this will not only help us during the, hopefully, six months of this pandemic, but into the future,” Gorin said of the program and the benefits of increased data collection efforts.
County housing staff is expected to return with a report at a meeting in April.
Other Bay Area governments already gather more information about evictions than Sonoma County does.
For instance, San Francisco, which has long had rent control and other stronger tenant protections on the books, requires landlords to file eviction notices with the city’s Rent Board, a city department which also tracks the amount of money landlords provided to their tenants in buyout agreements. The Rent Board also publishes annual reports about evictions and other related matters.
In January, Concord’s city council directed city staff to create a “rent registry” in order to better track the rate of evictions and rent increases in some of the city’s multi-unit apartment complexes.
The decision dismayed some of the city’s landlords and pleased tenants advocates. City council members hope the information will help them craft future policies.