Tenant advocates saw a modest increase in eviction notices in June, the month immediately following the Watsonville City Council’s decision to allow its citywide eviction moratorium to expire.
At its May 26 meeting, the council voted 5-2—with Mayor Rebecca Garcia and Councilmember Francisco Estrada dissenting—not to extend the moratorium past its May 31 expiration date, and instead defer to tenant protections put in place by California’s Judicial Council. Those state-level protections do not halt evictions from being filed, but they do stop the filings from being processed until 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifts the state of emergency related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sandra Silva, the directing attorney of California Rural Legal Assistance’s Watsonville office, says local filings began to pile up in the days after the city’s ban expired, and will come due when the state’s Judicial Council’s protections are lifted. None of Silva’s clients were served notices during the moratorium, she says.
“Even though they can’t go forward [with the eviction] right now and get into court, having an unlawful detainer filed against you and being served with court papers is extremely stressful during this time,” Silva says.
In early June, the Judicial Council planned to vote on possibly ending them on Aug. 3 but suspended its vote after talking with Newsom, state legislators and residents. Southern California landlords, who say the council is overreaching with its decision, have challenged the Judicial Council’s decision in court.
Silva says the rise in eviction notices resulted directly from the moratorium’s expiration and adds that some landlords have brazenly tried to evict renters that were hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and do not understand their rights.
“Landlords are saying things like, ‘You need to be out tomorrow,’ or ‘You need to be out at the end of the month,’” Silva says. “None of that is legal in the best-case scenario, let alone in the moratorium …. Some of our clients, sadly, say, ‘OK, fine, I’ll just go’ when they don’t have to, and there is nowhere to go.”
In March, the Watsonville City Council approved its moratorium to protect renters that had fallen into financial or medical instability because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was not a rent forgiveness plan. Renters still have to pay what they can and are expected to pay back their outstanding rent within six months after the order’s expiration.
SANTA CRUZ EXTENSION
Although the Santa Cruz City Council extended the moratorium last month, housing activist Josh Brahinsky isn’t sure how effective the law has been.
Renters, he says, don’t always have the resources or information to fully advocate for themselves, and Santa Cruz hasn’t created a process for tenants to learn their rights or stick up for themselves if their landlord tries to kick them out. And, even though there isn’t currently a method for landlords to legally force out tenants, missed rent payments will keep adding up. It isn’t clear how any struggling renter should negotiate with their landlord or weigh competing concerns like their grocery bills with their housing costs. That can lead to a tense situation, he explains.
“By continuing to expect people to pay rent when they cannot afford it, we’ve created a baffling system that breeds antagonism, and we’ve created a problem where this doesn’t make it clear how the tenant pays the rent back,” says Brahinsky, an organizer with the Santa Cruz Organizing Circle, which is getting ready to launch an ice cream tricycle that will give away free ice cream, along with information on how to get help during the pandemic.
In Watsonville, Silva says she refers displaced and struggling renters to nonprofits like Community Bridges, Families In Transition and the Community Action Board (CAB) of Santa Cruz County.
CAB spearheaded the city’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program, which distributed $85,000 of federal funds from the city’s Community Development Block Grant to help Watsonville renters. The assistance was quickly claimed by 66 local families negatively affected by the pandemic and ongoing shutdowns, according to City Manager Matt Huffaker. CAB recently launched a similar partnership with the city of Santa Cruz.
The Watsonville City Council allowed its eviction moratorium to expire on recommendation from the Eviction Moratorium Housing Taskforce, which said the Judicial Council’s protections made the city’s ban redundant. The taskforce, which included developers, property managers, nonprofit leaders, banks and tenant advocates, said the majority of Watsonville renters were able to pay rent through the first three months of the pandemic and that only a small number of landlords were serving tenants with eviction notices.
Some members of the taskforce disagreed with the group’s recommendations and said the moratorium should have been extended through June—at the very least.
The Watsonville Law Center (WLC) was one such member. Adriana Melgoza, chief programs officer for the nonprofit legal assistance organization, says the expiration of the moratorium was premature and that the true effects of the pandemic—and the economic stagnation that came with it—are not yet known.
More than half of WLC clients are still unemployed and have not been able to pay rent in the past two months, Melgoza says. Most landlords have been understanding of—and sticking to—the six-month payback period, but some have not.
“It’s too early to determine what the effects are going to be for our community,” Melgoza says. “We have to figure out what’s the best way to work together—not only with legal aid but with the city, with landlords, with tenants—to best handle the situation. After all, no one is to blame for this situation and we want to make sure that we’re all working together to have a healthy community. It’s not healthy for community members to be evicted at this time.”
Low-income community members may contact the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Inc. Rental Assistance Program at 831-457-1741 for information and initial screening to determine eligibility for assistance. For additional forms of support via United Way of Santa Cruz County, visit 211santacruzcounty.org or text “COVID19” to 211-211.
Additional reporting by Jacob Pierce.