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What to do if you can’t pay this month’s rent

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Everything you need to know about eviction protections in the Bay Area during the COVID-19 outbreak

An aerial view of single-family homes in a neighborhood. Photo via Shutterstock

April is here. For many Bay Area renters, homeowners, and entrepreneurs, it will be a cruel month as the ongoing public health emergency has left people with a wealth of problems but little in the way of funds.

If you’re facing the worrisome prospect of missing a rent payment, the good news is that Bay Area cities have some degree of special protection against eviction, and many places have extended breaks to mortgage payers and business owners as well. But sorting out the patchwork of local laws can be a real bear; how well you’re protected and how to invoke those defenses depends on where you live.

Should you, like many, be unable to pay your April rent, let your landlord or property manager know as soon as possible via email (always keep a paper trail when possible). Some landlords are offering extensions or even waiving rent altogether this month—either out of sympathy, a desire for good PR, or just the awareness that mass eviction would be more trouble than it’s worth right now.

If bargaining isn’t an option and you don’t have the money, your next steps depends on where you live.

  • Statewide: Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on eviction removals in California. Compared to eviction bans in many local jurisdictions, these protections are weak but they cover everyone. According to Newsom’s executive order, a landlord may begin the process of evicting tenants, but through May 31, when it comes to renters who missed payments due to sickness, job less, or other documented results of the COVID-19 outbreak, that order may not be enforced. You must notify your landlord about the reason for non-payment within seven days, and must provide documentation by the time you eventually pay the back rent (which remains due even if you cannot be ousted). Some tenant advocates complain that Newsom’s moratorium only draws out the eviction process rather than halts it—but if none of the other orders below apply to you then this could work as a slender lifeline.

Here’s a letter template renters can use to send to their landlords.

  • San Francisco: Mayor London Breed issued a moratorium on residential evictions in the city for renters “directly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis” and for “small and medium-sized businesses” (those with less than $25 million in yearly gross receipts). Renters who warn their landlord within 30 days of a missed rent payment that they’ve suffered due to outbreak-related hardships are shielded from eviction. If your landlord issues a “pay or quit” notice, you’ll have to provide documentation (see below) illustrating financial hardship from the public health emergency; most types of no-fault eviction are verboten under these rules. (For more details on no-fault evictions, see Curbed SF’s guide to rent relief in San Francisco.) The order lasts for 30 days, though Breed may extend it. Once the order deadline ends, tenants have 30 days to catch up on the suspended payments, with possible extensions up to six months. Note: You will still owe your landlord the full rent amount sooner or later.
  • Oakland: The Oakland City Council passed an even more extensive coronavirus-related eviction moratorium. Good through May 31, the city’s eviction ban states that “if you are unable to pay rent due to financial hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic” during this period, that hardship will work as an “absolute defense” in unlawful detainer suits—so if your landlord takes you to court, they’ll be out of luck. Further, while back rent will still be due, the city decrees those debts may never be used as grounds to remove a tenant from the unit—indefinitely. The moratorium requires that renters document the nature of their COVID-10-related hardship, but does not include a deadline. Landlords also cannot issue late fees for missed rent. The city hasn’t mandated any deadline for payment of back rent after the order ends, instead encouraging landlords and tenants to negotiate such steps themselves.
  • Berkeley: Berkeley’s eviction ban specifies that “no landlord or other entity shall evict or attempt to evict an occupant” for nonpayment of rent or for default on mortgage if it results from loss of income due to the current health crisis. Berkeley, like San Francisco, has also barred no-fault evictions except in cases of health and safety violations. Landlords may not serve eviction notices or take any subsequent steps during this time. To qualify for these protections, tenants must notify their landlord in writing, and provide documentation to illustrate their financial hardship. Renters will still owe back rent, but landlords can’t charge late fees.
  • Emeryville: Under the terms imposed by the city of Emeryville last week, “a landlord may not terminate the tenancy of a residential tenant [...] for failure to pay rent,” and...that’s all there is to it, at least in the text of the measure. Short, sweet, and to the point. The city does tell renters they still owe rent payments, but there are no rules about repayment schedules or prescribed actions to qualify for protection, as the statue defines an affected residential tenant as any household which “has been instructed to shelter-in-place in their home.” This also applies to small businesses, in this case defined as those with annual gross receipts of $7.5 million or less.
  • Alameda (city): Alameda’s eviction block includes several useful benchmarks not included in other cities’ measures, including a standard of financial burden that specifies a renter qualifies for these protections if they have suffered a 20 percent or more reduction in monthly income, and includes “extraordinary childcare needs” arising from the emergency situation—such as the need to take time off of work to look after children whose schools have closed—as qualifying a hardship sufficient to qualify for eviction protection. The city of Alameda also specifically bars landlords from shutting off utilities over nonpayment. The order does not specify a repayment timetable, and it notes that COVID-19 hardship will be “a defense in any eviction action instituted under state law.” According to SF attorney Michael Astanehe, Alameda renters don’t even have to warn property owners that they will miss a payment or document the cause (though Astanehe recommends you do both).
  • Alameda (county): Outside the jurisdictions of Berkeley, the city of Alameda, Emeryville, and Oakland, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors mandated that for 30 days (starting March 24), “no landlord or lender may evict a tenant, [...] require a resident to vacate their residence, or retaliate against a resident for nonpayment of their rent or mortgage.” In this case, the renter only needs to provide notice about a loss of income or medical hardship upon receiving an eviction notice. Although prudence dictates not stonewalling your landlord about late payments.
  • Concord: Concord’s ban establishes “a temporary moratorium on evictions for failure to pay rent, utilities, late fees and penalties for residential and commercial tenants.” Renters have 90-days after the lifting of the moratorium to pay rent owed, and landlords can’t charge late fees. Renters must “provide landlord with written documentation demonstrating at least a 20 percent reduction of monthly gross pay as a result of a layoff or reduction in hours caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, or because of childcare needs or expenses arising from school closures or childcare closures” within three days of a missed payment, with documentation included.
  • San Jose: San Jose’s eviction ban extends through April 17 and, similar to Alameda County, the tenant’s action begins after a notice is served. The South Bay city’s renter guidelines specify that “if your landlord serves you with a notice of termination, you should immediately notify the landlord of your intention to stop the eviction.” If your landlord moves ahead with an unlawful detainer suit, you can stop it by providing notice and evidence of job loss, wage loss, or medical expenses related to COVID-19. The city warns landlords that the moratorium applies to all residential properties, but does specify whether or not just-cause evictions are permissible.
  • Santa Clara County: For those who live outside of San Jose in Santa Clara County, the county rules adopted last week extend through May 31. This measure can override city moratoriums if the city measures are “less stringent,” but allows for towns like San Jose to pass more robust renter protections. Under this ban, an “owner of residential real property or commercial real property shall not terminate a tenancy for failure to pay rent” if the tenant demonstrates that nonpayment is a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it prohibits no-fault evictions too. Any eviction notice served under these circumstances will be treated as “void” Renters may use the moratorium as a defense in unlawful detainer cases.
  • Marin County: Marin County’s eviction protections are in place until May 31 and specify “no landlord shall evict a residential or commercial tenant or otherwise recover possession of a leasehold if the residential or commercial tenant” as long as the renter provides notice within 30 days of the rent being due. Renters will also need to provide documentation within one week of that notice. Once notified, the landlord may not serve an eviction notice to start the eviction process.

Examples of COVID-19 related hardship typically include job loss, loss of work hours (possibly down to zero), business closure, a substantial decrease in business income due to reduced hours or decreased public demand, missing work to care for homebound kids, or prolonged sickness and/or medical expenses related to COVID-19 treatment.

Note that all of these moratoriums may soon extend beyond the deadlines listed above if shelter-in-place order go beyond their deadlines. They may also end early if cities choose to cancel emergency orders earlier than anticipated. Cities and counties are likely to make changes to these laws and add additional protections.

In many cities without special renter protections, like Contra Costa County, the relevant courts are closed during the ongoing shelter orders, meaning that landlords will have a hard time evicting tenants even if they’re permitted to do so. Renters in such areas should treat court congestion as a safety net at their peril.