Calif. governor bans evictions during pandemic; housing advocates say that’s not enough
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced a temporary ban on all evictions in the state due to non-payment of rent for the duration of the pandemic, but affordable housing and homelessness were already major problems in the state before COVID-19 struck. In this Jan. 14, 2020 file photo, signs are posted outside of a house that was occupied by the group Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, Calif. The homeless mothers were evicted from an unoccupied Oakland house where they were squatting. | Jeff Chiu / AP

OAKLAND, Calif.—As California counties and cities moved to protect tenants and homeowners against losing their homes because of COVID-19’s impact on their finances, Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 27 announced an executive order barring landlords throughout the state from evicting tenants who can document the pandemic’s financial consequences.

Newsom’s order extends through May 31. It protects tenants who notify their landlord in writing, no more than seven days after rent is due, that they need to delay payment of all or part of the rent because they were sick with COVID-19, were laid off or had their hours cut because of the pandemic, or needed to care for a sick member of their household or a child whose school was closed. Tenants must show landlords “verifiable documentation” of their inability to pay, will have to pay the back rent in the future, and could be evicted after the moratorium ends.

The order came after significant pressure from housing advocates, including a March 25 letter addressed to the governor and signed by over 40 members of the state Senate and Assembly.

The legislators thanked Newsom for his “recognition of the need to limit evictions” during the pandemic. But, they said, “the situation has rapidly evolved” and the governor’s request earlier in the month that cities and counties institute their own anti-eviction measures was no longer enough. They called on Newsom to issue “one clear order” covering all tenants and not requiring documentation that may be hard to obtain.

“For now,” they said, “we need to keep everyone who is currently housed where they are so they can shelter in place, follow recommended guidelines, and help California flatten the curve.”

Not all the legislators were happy with the governor’s response. The Sacramento Bee quoted Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who said on Twitter that while he appreciated Newsom’s statewide action to delay evictions for those who notify landlords and can present documentation, “I do think this should have gone further. I still believe an outright moratorium on evictions without proactive tenant action is the best and clearest approach to ensure all tenants shelter in place.”

He was joined in his observations by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who said in a statement that while he appreciates Newsom’s action, “his executive order does not meet the task at hand: ensuring that renters can stay in their homes now and after the emergency ends … The last thing we need is a wave of evictions immediately after the emergency ends, and that is exactly what this executive order allows.”

Nor were housing advocates satisfied.

On March 30, the San Francisco Examiner featured an op-ed by three Bay Area housing advocates who called Newsom’s order “another disappointing half-step that continues to leave great uncertainty for millions of Californians … At best the order delays evictions when certain circumstances are met, but does not prohibit evictions from being filed or from being carried out once the COVID-19 ‘emergency’ is over.”

The three—Peter Cohen, co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations; Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Orange County-based affordable housing nonprofit Kennedy Commission; and Chione Flegal, managing director at PolicyLink—called on Newsom to enact “an immediate statewide mandatory moratorium on all rent increases, evictions, foreclosures, and sheriff lockouts, and other protective measures.”

Among ongoing local efforts to protect California renters was the ordinance passed unanimously by Oakland’s City Council, at a special March 27 teleconference meeting that drew 1,000 participants.

The measure bans evictions during the local emergency the city declared because of the pandemic unless tenants threaten the health and safety of other occupants. It sharply limits rent increases and prohibits late fees or future evictions for nonpayment during the pandemic. It also protects small businesses with commercial leases if they can’t pay rent because of COVID-19.

The Oakland ordinance also calls on the governor, the legislature, and members of Congress to enact further comprehensive protections, and urges financial institutions to suspend mortgage payments and foreclosures for low-income homeowners and landlords.

However, it does not cancel rent debt owed during the COVID-19 pandemic, nor does it protect renters’ credit ratings against damage from pandemic-related delays.

The ordinance was introduced by Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, with co-authors Councilmember Dan Kalb and City Attorney Barbara Parker. It is in effect through May 31, and the Council may extend it if necessary. It is backed by Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Area housing advocates commended the measure.

Camilo Sol Zamora, deputy director of programs with Causa Justa::Just Cause, called it “right on time” and “a model for the state and other cities across the country.” Though it doesn’t meet all the needs of vulnerable residents, he said, “it will provide some relief to the 58 percent of Oaklanders who are renters,” the majority of whom are working-class black, Latinx and immigrant residents, communities repeatedly and disproportionately harmed by housing crises.

Causa Justa::Just Cause is one of the organizations making up the Protect Oakland Renters coalition, which had petitioned Mayor Schaaf and the City Council demanding a moratorium.

At the same meeting, the Council passed resolutions introduced by Council President Rebecca Kaplan, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among unhoused residents. One resolution states that a homeless encampment can only be removed if an appropriate shelter is provided that follows social distancing guidelines. Another calls for acquiring facilities, buildings, and supplies to aid unhoused residents, and a third calls for awarding a contract for regular trash pickup at encampments.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.