California cities, counties act to protect renters, homeowners, and unsheltered residents
Lisa Marie Nava, right, hands out soap and hand sanitizer at a mobile shower service for the unsheltered provided by The Shower of Hope at MacArthur Park, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Los Angeles. | Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

OAKLAND, Calif.—As COVID-19 infections soar and economic activity is increasingly disrupted, communities across California are acting to keep the most sharply impacted people in their homes, and to shelter the most vulnerable of all—more than 100,000 unsheltered Californians.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced March 26 that he had reached agreement with four nationwide banks—Citi, JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo—and with almost 200 state-chartered banks and other financial institutions for a 90-day grace period on mortgage payments by Californians most impacted by COVID-19. The institutions also agreed not to start foreclosure sales or evictions for at least 60 days. They promised not to share related information with credit reporting agencies. One institution, Bank of America, only agreed to a 30-day suspension of mortgages and foreclosures.

In a March 16 executive order, the governor had called on financial institutions holding home or commercial mortgages to institute such a moratorium.

In that same order, Newsom urged local governments to bar evictions of tenants unable to pay rent because of the pandemic. But organizations advocating for housing as a human right say that’s far from enough to meet the crisis. They are urging the governor to take sweeping statewide actions to protect both homeowners and tenants.

The tenant-led Housing Now! Coalition of over 60 organizations is calling on the governor to enact an immediate moratorium on rent hikes/evictions/foreclosures, order a stop to encampment sweeps and vehicle tows, provide emergency rental or mortgage assistance, call on lenders to suspend mortgages, and order a ban on utility shutoffs and related fees. Their petition to the governor is here.

In launching their petition, the organizations expressed appreciation to Newsom for the intent of his actions to date but said they fall far short of adequately addressing the crisis. “We must stand with and for each other,” they said, “against anything used to divide us … Only by standing united can we rewrite the rules to ensure better health for all.”

In Oakland, City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas and co-authors Councilmember Dan Kalb and City Attorney Barbara Parker have introduced an emergency ordinance to put an immediate emergency eviction moratorium in place for residential and commercial tenancies during the pandemic. The measure, which is expected to be voted on at a special City Council meeting by teleconference March 27, would ban residential evictions and evictions of small and medium-size commercial enterprises for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, because of decreased income/increased expenses. It would also formally urge state and federal legislators, banks, and financial institutions to provide relief to low-income renters, homeowners, and landlords.

“Keeping people safe at home is the most powerful tool we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives,” Bas said in a statement. “This will help people stay in their homes right now … To address the broader economic problem, I’m also calling on the City Council to urge state and federal legislators, and banks and financial institutions to suspend rent and mortgage payments, foreclosures, and late fees for low-income homeowners and landlords, with immediate forgiveness.”

Calling for similar action, the Protect Oakland Renters Committee this week initiated a petition addressed to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and city councilmembers. Among the demands: an immediate moratorium on all evictions of residential homes, utility shutoffs, and late rental fees; protecting small businesses; ending homeless encampment sweeps; and assuring unhoused people have adequate care and access to safe shelter.

Camilo Zamora, deputy director of Causa Justa::Just Cause—a Renters Committee member organization—said in a statement, “We call on Oakland’s elected leaders to immediately implement a moratorium on all evictions regardless of the reason so that Oaklanders can focus on their families their livelihoods and their health … There is nothing like a global pandemic to put into perspective how important home is for all of us, and how inextricably connected we all are to each other.”

Among many similar actions around the Bay Area:

— Alameda County on March 24 unanimously passed an emergency ordinance suspending evictions in unincorporated parts of the county, for renters and homeowners experiencing loss of income, significant out-of-pocket medical expenses or childcare needs as a result of the county’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. The county has also closed its Eviction Court until April 7 and the Sheriff’s Department has suspended all eviction enforcement for the time being.

— On the same day, the San Leandro City Council unanimously passed an urgency ordinance to temporarily halt evictions for nonpayment of rent due to a substantial loss of income because of the pandemic.

— Nearby Contra Costa County has closed its Eviction Court and the Sheriff’s Department has suspended all eviction enforcement at least until April 1.

— The Cities of Richmond and Berkeley have issued moratoriums on evictions for nonpayment of rent, and for no-fault reasons, for the duration of their States of Emergency.

— San Francisco Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney said March 24 that they are introducing a proposal calling on Gov. Newsom and the Trump administration to declare a moratorium on all rent and mortgage payments. ABC 7 quoted Ronen as saying that under their proposal, tenants would not have to pay the rent when the stay-at-home order is lifted. The city already had a moratorium on evicting tenants affected by COVID-19.

At the same time, across the state efforts are being greatly ramped up to shelter and protect unhoused Californians.

Of the $1.1 billion COVID-19-related emergency funding the state legislature passed earlier this month, Gov. Newsom has earmarked $100 million to help local governments shelter and protect people living in tents or vehicles. Close to half will go to the state’s 13 largest cities, with counties and HUD-related Continuums of Care dividing the rest.

Funds can be used for medical services and supplies, equipping and supplying emergency shelters, arranging places to shelter those needing isolation for COVID-19 exposure, and doing street outreach.

In the city of Sacramento and the surrounding county, plans are being made to move some 663 unsheltered people into existing private hotels, shelter beds that provide social distancing, emergency trailers, and homes obtained with federal Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers, the Sacramento Bee reported March 25. The county and city are working with Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit working to end homelessness, and with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. A count made over a year ago found over 5,500 people experiencing homelessness in the county.

In San Jose, with more than 6,000 unsheltered residents, the city is working with Santa Clara County, the Center for Disease Control, Public Health Department and the nonprofit Destination Home. Among projects: setting up over 100 state-owned trailers to house people suffering from COVID-19 or exposed to it who don’t need hospitalization, moving at-risk people into tiny homes, preparing facilities in the city’s convention center campus, and seeking motel rooms to lease.

In Oakland, with over 4,000 unsheltered residents, the state has obtained nearly 400 rooms in two hotels and is working to find additional hotel beds for unhoused people. The city, working with Alameda County, has deployed portable toilets and wash stations to some 30 unhoused encampments, has stepped up provision of hand sanitizers and hygiene packets, and increased garbage pickup and cleaning supplies and services at all facilities for the unsheltered.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.