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.”

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