Placed strictly in the context of the urgency that surrounds it, Monday’s announcement of a proposed extension of eviction protections for California’s battered lower income renters is welcome news.
Moreover, since the deal was worked out among both state Senate and Assembly leaders, quick passage on Thursday is almost assured.
But a fix it is not.
Rather, it’s exactly what it appears to be: a flawed and in many ways incomplete emergency measure, crafted in the high heat of the COVID-19 pandemic without the input of some significant stakeholders — and certain to require adjustments or perhaps follow-up legislation altogether.
Put another way, it is one piece of a very large puzzle. And when it comes to California’s ongoing crisis of affordable housing, that puzzle continues to grow.
“This proposal is a step toward the critical goals of housing stability and economic and health recovery,” Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said in a statement issued just after the announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).
The need for relief will not abate and almost all of these issues are part of the state’s long, unfolding housing affordability crisis mostly affecting people of color.
But Wiener, who led the charge for renter protections early in the pandemic last year, also pointed out some immediately obvious problems.
Among other things, the bill still leaves the ultimate fate of many renters to their landlords. It also only freezes a situation that, in the larger picture, isn’t changing anytime soon. And given California’s pandemic unemployment benefits and vaccine rollout fiascos, as Wiener noted, it’s fair to wonder how this process could possibly go smoothly.
The bill itself is fairly straightforward. With hundreds of thousands of Californians currently unable to pay full rent, the measure prevents landlords from enforcing eviction measures until July. (The current moratorium was scheduled to end Jan. 31.)
Renters are protected so long as they can pay 25% of their total due going back to September 2020, either each month or in a lump sum, and can prove pandemic-related job or income losses.
The stakes are high, clearly (and continuously).
According to Newsom’s budget proposal for 2021-22, the state’s Judicial Council estimates that the number of eviction court cases could double this year to a staggering 240,000, “given the potential universe of 903,000 households at risk.” Thus, any moratorium on such processes or rent relief serves a secondary purpose of avoiding a burden on the court system.
“COVID-19 continues to devastate communities across our state, and too many Californians remain one paycheck away from losing their apartments or homes,” said Newsom, Rendon and Atkins’ statement. “These families need relief and protection now.”
The measure also takes $1.5 billion from a pool of $2.6 billion in federal funding that was allocated to California via December’s stimulus bill and uses it for state directed rent relief. The rest of that federal money is going to local jurisdictions, although it can also be used for rent relief.
But the deal includes some qualifiers and a few huge caveats, and those factors may undercut some of its best intentions. In addition to previously mentioned conditions, households have to be at 80% or less of the median income level in their area in order to receive federal rent relief; they would still qualify for state eviction protection so long as they’ve paid 25% of their amount due.
Perhaps more significant is the bill’s language pertaining to landlords.
The rent subsidy plan would pay landlords 80% of what they’re owed from April 2020 to March 2021 – but only if they agree to forgive the remaining 20%. While that might sound like a fair enough compromise, the landlords have another option: refuse to forgive the unpaid rent. In that case, they reserve their right eventually to pursue evictions – and the state will still pay them 25% of rent due for three months, beginning in March.
“This plan leaves tenants to the luck of the draw,” Christina Livingston, of the tenant advocacy group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, told the Los Angeles Times.
“If the tenant is unlucky enough to have a corporate landlord who wants to flip the building, or a racist landlord who doesn’t like them, they won’t receive the relief” because those landlords could opt to retain their rights and press eviction cases.
Other tenant advocates note that as a group they were largely denied a seat at the table as the bill was being put together, while lobbyists for building owners and corporate developers were welcomed.
“The power imbalance between tenants and landlords is troubling, as the amount of assistance a tenant receives is determined solely by the cooperation of their landlord,” said Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who wrote the current moratorium that was signed into law last August.
Chiu’s Monday morning statement continued: “I expect there will be a need to revisit this legislation to address gaps and to provide relief to additional tenants.”
The need for relief will not abate. A Federal Reserve study late last year projected that Californians would owe nearly $1.7 billion in back rent by the end of 2020, and there is nothing about the first month of 2021 to suggest that a turnaround is imminent. Newsom’s announcement Monday that he has lifted stay at home orders across the state is but a small step toward a long, slow economic renewal.
And, this emergency bill’s likely passage notwithstanding, almost all of these issues are part of the state’s long, unfolding housing affordability crisis, one that profoundly affects millions of California residents and is particularly brutal for lower income earners, many of whom are people of color.
The pandemic injected those issues with an immediacy and urgency that forced politicians into action. Now, prodded by deadline pressure, they have acted again. But these short-term fixes most assuredly will end.
Capital & Main