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How to get rent relief during the pandemic

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Good news: You won’t be evicted during the present pandemic. Bad news: You still have to pay your rent—and you could be evicted later.

A series of colorful mid-rise apartment buildings from the 1920s through the 1940s, all clustered together on a hillside under a blue sky. Shutterstock

As jobs vanish and bank accounts empty thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic, San Francisco renters—all roughly 600,000 of them—have received a small measure of relief.

For the duration of the “stay-at-home” orders, no renter in the city will be forcibly removed, because the gears of eviction have been temporarily halted—emphasis on temporarily. Renters will still have to be both proactive as well as frugal in order to hold on to their homes.

Roughly 97 percent of SF tenants paid May rent, due in part to the stimulus checks many received, but landlords are bracing for a possible drop in that number for June.

As of now, missed rent will still be due later down the road. Tenants in arrears because the COVID-19 outbreak, or due to shelter-in-place orders ruining their business or careers, may yet find themselves staring down a dreaded “pay or quit” notice from their landlords, the first step in the legal process for evictions, in six months’ time.

“We’re hoping that the city decides something stronger so that we don’t end up with a complete crisis six months from now, because we expect a number of people won’t be able to make rent,” said Deepa Varma, an attorney and executive director of the SF Tenants Union.

Until then, in order to take advantage of the temporary “moratorium” on evictions announced in March by San Francisco Mayor London Breed—as well as a new statewide moratorium announced in the same month by Gov. Gavin Newsom—renters will have to take action.

Here’s what you need to know and what you need to do.

What does the moratorium do?

The moratorium bars landlords from evicting residential tenants who cannot pay rent because of loss of income from work, childcare costs related to school closures, healthcare costs related to COVID-19.

The eviction moratorium will be in effect for 30 days, and can be extended by the mayor for another 30 days through an executive order. If the “local emergency” order by Mayor Breed is rescinded at any point, the moratorium will cease to be in effect.

But you can still be served an eviction notice, and you can still receive the paperwork associated with the eviction process.

The first steps in an eviction process

There are three discrete steps in the legal process known as an “eviction.” One is the notice from a landlord to a tenant that the lease has been terminated for nonpayment of rent. The second is the unlawful detainer lawsuit filed in Superior Court. And if the notice cannot be cured with a rent payment, and if the judge rules that the landlord can reclaim the rental unit, the third is the visit from the sheriff’s deputies to enforce the order.

For now, all three mechanisms are stopped.

Following the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto said his deputies would not enforce any “scheduled and any upcoming evictions that may come out in regards to the civil process,” as the San Francisco Examiner reported. That civil process was put on pause two days later, when the San Francisco Superior Court announced that all unlawful detainer actions would be suspended for 90 days as of March.

So if a renter does receive a “pay or quit” notice from a landlord, there’s no way to enforce or escalate. However, the document is still legally binding—and Mayor Breed’s moratorium is limited in scope.

It applies only to renters who fall behind due to “financial impacts … caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and only rents due on or after that date, explained Supervisor Dean Preston, a tenants’ attorney involved with the decision.

“If they don’t respond to [the notice], once the time is up” and the moratorium expires, “their tenancy has still been terminated by the landlord,” he said. “And they will be in a very dangerous position.”

A renter will have to both respond to the notice in writing and provide documentation proving that their missing April (or mid-March, or late March, for tenants on one- or two-week leases) was because coronavirus wrecked their financial situation, either by a layoff, reduced hours or a shuttered business, or “increased out-of-pocket medical expenses related to COVID-19.”

Get ahead of late payment or nonpayment

Ideally, a tenant will alert a landlord ahead of time that they’re going to miss rent because the novel coronavirus quashed their income, said Varma. “They would have to send a letter the week before the rent is due, saying they won’t be able to make rent,” she said. (The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development says that the tenant must do so within 30 days of the rent being due. That may be useful in any future legal proceeding, but it can’t hurt to be early.)

If you have your landlord’s email address, send the notice electronically to keep a paper trail. If you communicate with your landlord via the mail, keep a copy of your letter. Or, better yet, take a picture of the letter. At the absolute latest, send this letter upon receipt of your pay or quit notice, but try not to let it get that far. (The notice may be incoming anyway.)

Remember: Relief is only for novel coronavirus

Nonpayment of rent situations account for the vast majority of evictions, said Varma. But if a tenant was already behind on rent prior to Breed’s order, the moratorium won’t be much help. The moratorium is only for rent missed to lost income following the order. Likewise, if the tenant has broken the lease, or presents violence- or health-related threats, they can still be evicted. Starting June 1, San Francisco courts will restore a number of services to its operations that were reduced at the start of the pandemic. According to the city, “All actions in unlawful detainer cases, including trials, motions, discovery, and ex parte applications, with the exception of unlawful detainer cases resulting from violence, threats of violence, or health and safety issues, are stayed for 90 days, until June 19, 2020.”

Above all, remember: For now, missed rent is still due. Just later, and not now.

Create a paper trail and present your proof

One week after receiving the notice or informing your landlord that April rent isn’t coming, you have to show why. For employed wage-workers, this should be relatively easy. Pay stubs showing loss of hours or income from before everything went sideways to today should suffice. If you’ve been laid off, show a copy of your notice from your human resources department. If “HR” was the owner of a bar or restaurant where you were paid in cash, try to get a letter or some other notice from them in order to keep a paper trail. If you’re a gig worker, show the decline in Lyft rides or Postmates tasks.

If all else fails, you may have to provide bank statements demonstrating a noticeable absence of deposits. “People should over-document rather than under-document,” said Preston.

Repeat if necessary, but not forever

What if this happens again? For example, June rent is due—and the virus has still halted life, and you’re still broke. Be prepared to go through this process all over again. And again, and again. The eviction moratorium is currently effective through August 30, 2020. According to Breed’s office. “If you missed your rent payment due to financial impacts of COVID-19, you have until December 30, 2020 to pay.”

Hope for the best

Whether any of this will actually work is at best an untested hypothesis. “We’re going to have to hope that the courts and the city are as generous with these definitions as possible,” said Varma, who advised the obvious: Any tenants who do receive eviction notices should waste no time reaching out to an attorney, either in private practice or at the Tenants Union or Eviction Defense Collaborative. Eviction cases where tenants have lawyers have been far more effective at keeping renters in their homes.

“We’re going to fight like hell for every tenant we can, because this is a ridiculous situation,” she said.

It will probably get better

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, issued a statewide ban on residential evictions in March, which was meant to last until June 1. But last week, the governor issued an executive order extending authorization for local governments to halt evictions for renters affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, through July 28. Gov Newsom’s moratorium only protects renters from eviction on account of nonpayment of rent for reasons directly resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, including job loss, furlough and/or loss of hours, sick leave, or medical expenses.

However, banks haven’t said they’ll stop accepting mortgage payments—meaning landlords have every incentive to continue to collect rents. Two major rental companies, Veritas and GreenTree, did announce temporary suspension of evictions for tenants wrecked financially because of the pandemic, but many other agencies have not.

Preston and other lawmakers at City Hall recognize that this might not be enough, particularly as unemployment claims skyrocket and the economy continues to crumble. More orders, from lawmakers or from the mayor, are pending.

Los Angeles also has its own process to rent relief during the novel coronavirus crisis.

Curbed SF will continue to update this article throughout pandemic.