Coronavirus

Covid-19, Fires Throw Renters and Landlords Into Deeper Bind

The sunset of eviction moratoriums could prove devastating

Homes along Ohlone Parkway in Watsonville. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for Santa Cruz County renters, property managers and landlords alike.

With renters suddenly out of work and unable to pay most, or even the entirety of their rent, threats of evictions have been looming. For some landlords, not being able to pay their mortgages has been a strain.

In addition, countywide rental vacancy, which was low prior to the pandemic, has shrunk in recent months, in part due to the hundreds of evacuees from the CZU Lightning Complex fire in August.

“About 950 homes were suddenly gone, and people needed new places to live,” said Kathy Oliver, owner of Oliver Property Management in Watsonville. “Some went to hotels, but a big portion went straight to rentals. We filled up, first in North County and then down here. … At one point we had three rentals taken in one day.”

Oliver, whose business manages about 450 units in the area, said that things have been relatively civil between the tenants and landlords she works with.

“From what I’ve seen, the majority of tenants are understanding of their landlords, and vice versa. … If they don’t have the money, they are at least communicating and trying to find solutions,” she said.

The main issue, Oliver said, are landlords who operate without the aid of professional property managers.

“I’ve heard stories about them locking tenants out, harassing them,” Oliver said. “They were trying to go ‘old school,’ and often had no idea they were breaking rules. You shouldn’t self-manage if you don’t know the law.”

Sandra Silva, directing attorney of California Rural Legal Assistance, said that many landlords were attempting to find loopholes in California’s Tenant Relief Act, or Assembly Bill 3088, which is meant to temporarily prevent evictions due to Covid-19 hardships.

“In the beginning … we were absolutely swamped [with clients],” Silva said. “So much was happening at once. Tenants being threatened, losing their homes … and we saw a few cases around the fires, too.”

The city of Watsonville and its Eviction Moratorium Task Force (which includes Oliver), approved an eviction moratorium earlier this year that lasted through May. Another moratorium was put into place in August but will sunset Jan. 15. Coupled with the end of AB 3088, which sunsets in March, Silva said the results could be devastating. 

“People will suddenly have to cough up thousands of dollars of rent, all at once,” Silva said. “That’s a huge concern for many of our clients.”

Emergency rental assistance for people affected by Covid-19 has been handed out via the city, county and various nonprofits, funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Another round of funding is currently being offered to residents in unincorporated areas of Santa Cruz County. The assistance can be applied toward past due rent and/or utilities incurred after April 1, 2020, and can cover a maximum of six months back, with a limit of $10,000 per household.

Applications are open through Nov. 16. Apply online or call 316-9877 to apply by phone or schedule an appointment.

Silvia and Oliver had similar things to say about housing in Santa Cruz County: There needs to be more of it, especially affordable housing for low-income residents. A few such projects are in the works, including one off of Freedom Boulevard expected to start construction in Spring 2021.

But more is needed, they say.

“There is a huge disparity between wages earned and what people have to pay in rent,” Silva said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

For now, there are several resources to help tenants and landlords survive the pandemic. The self-help center at the Watsonville Courthouse, 1 Second St., Room 301, is a great resource, Silva said. Oliver added that the California Department of Real Estate’s Housing is Key web page is a way to keep up-to-date with state laws.

“If you’re a tenant and you don’t feel like something is right, look it up,” Oliver said. “And if you’re a landlord—abide with the law.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Chelsea Wagner

    November 8, 2020 at 4:08 am

    I personally take offense, I have been a landlady for 43 years. I have rentals in three cities in CA and I know more about the law than all 20+ of my property managers. I had two tenants in Santa Cruz feign covid loss of income but backed off once they found out they would have to pay the rent back. And sure I will bend over backwards for any tenants who actually need help. And yes I find resources for many of my tenants when that have an income issue. I rent to illegal immigrants whom don’t qualify for assistance and section eight people whom used to be homeless. But the real truth is.

    “There is a huge disparity between wages earned and what people have to pay in rent,” Silva said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

    The truth is that it is not a cost of housing issue, our rents are lower than in San Jose. This is solely a wage issue that could easily be fixed by increasing the minimum wage. Caused simply by the amount of people whom are willing to pay a higher ratio to income for housing just to live here by the beach. And there is no limit to the amount of people whom are willing to do that. The fact is that no amount of building will ever change that. It is like digging a hole next to the reservoir once you are done digging the hole and open the door it will fill up and then you are back at the level you were before with just more volume of people. If we keep building rentals we will just have more people sharing the same space. Rents will still go up till they reach the same balance between wages and income until there are so many people there that we lose the desirability for people to want to live here.

    “If you’re a tenant and you don’t feel like something is right, look it up,” Oliver said. “And if you’re a landlord—abide with the law.” “I’ve heard stories about them locking tenants out, harassing them,” Oliver said. “They were trying to go ‘old school,’ and often had no idea they were breaking rules. You shouldn’t self-manage if you don’t know the law.”

    Tenants have more legal assistance than landlords. And sure landlords need to abide by the law. But many tenants are abusing the eviction moratorium. Those are the ones that never lost their job but are happy to rip off the landlord for a free place to stay. Or simply decide that they can party every nite and terrorize the rest of the neighborhood with no consequences. Sure most people are good people and you would bend over backwards to help them but there is always the bad ones.

    As for a lack of rentals due to the fires, that is simply not true as all of us know UCSC is not doing in person classes and several large rental complexes have just come on line so in SC there is an abundance of empty rental units. Way more than needed for displaced families. In fact the lack of students is driving rental prices into the ground. Since I do not subscribe to large rental hikes most of my units are priced below market; yet I have had more turnover in the last two months since the stimulus has ended then I usually see in five years. Good people whom don’t rip off landladies or landlords. For example I have one moving back to Mexico, one lost her job but can’t get anymore assistance since she is illegal, a couple moving to bigger lower cost rentals. This doesn’t’ bother me since I work with programs that have plenty of good homeless people whom just need a caring landlady to get back on their feet and whom can look the other way at their credit report, unlike management companies. I am re-renting my units for way more then any management companies would get me. Yes, some landlords are struggling to get the money they need to live and pay bills and sure some renters are gaming the system but management companies are no angels either. I can name one locally that would call a plumber collect from me for the work and the tenants and pocket the extra or the one that lied about the amounts when they raised the rents, pocketing the difference. Management companies are no panacea either. Sure I use management companies but I have learned that you have to watch every move they make and pay your own bills.

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