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New tenant protections leave many Sonoma County renters vulnerable to eviction

Top Tips from Tenant Organizers and Housing Attorneys for Renters Facing Eviction

When possible, pay your current rent since pending rental aid applications aren’t an end-all be-all protection, especially for more recent months.

If you can’t pay your rent, and COVID-19 is a factor, gather as much documentation as possible showing pandemic-related financial losses or medical factors since Sonoma County has a local ordinance (6301) that offers some protection. Legal aid organizations can help prepare your defense.

Whenever possible seek help from legal aid or tenant rights organizations, and don’t wait until an eviction lawsuit is filed to reach out.

Sign up for the Sonoma County Rental Assistance Program (https://portal.neighborlysoftware.com/ERAP-SONOMACOUNTYCA/Participant) wait list if applicable since further policy extensions or changes and potential additional funding might extend protections.

In some cases, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission has been able to expedite aid for renters who are waiting on rental assistance and facing an eviction.

Though limited, check with local community organizations to see if other rental assistance is available.

Don’t self-evict if possible. If landlords don’t follow the notification procedures for eviction or there are inconsistencies or errors is the paperwork, like noting the wrong name, address, date or rent owed, the notices and proceedings can be at least temporarily invalidated, buying tenants time.

Talk to your neighbors, especially if you’re in an apartment complex, to see if others are facing similar issues.

Legal aid and tenant support organizations:

Legal Aid of Sonoma County (legalaidsc.org)

– Housing hotline: 707-843-4432; Urgent matters: 707-542-1290

– Address: 144 South E Street, Suite 100, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

– Client intake hours: Monday & Tuesday 9:15-11:30 am and 1:15-4:00 pm; Wednesday 9:15-11:30 am; Thursday 9:15-11:30 am and 1:15-4:00 pm

Sonoma County Tenants Union: (sonomatenants.org)

– Tenant hotline: 707-387-1968 (sctuhotline@gmail.com)

California Rural Legal Assistance: crla.org, 1-800-337-0690

Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California: fairhousingnorcal.org, 415-457-5025

Legal Services of Northern California: lsnc.net, 707-462-1471 for the office serving Mendocino and Lake counties

More resources on housing and the eviction process are available at www.lawhelpca.org/topic/housing.

Elizabeth Avila, who leads the Sonoma County Tenants Union’s hotline, regularly receives calls about eviction. But lately, she’s seen an uptick, especially in reports of the three-day “pay or quit” notices used to evict tenants who are behind on rent.

I heard a similar story when I spoke to Margaret DeMatteo and Sunny Noh, housing attorney and legal services manager respectively for Legal Aid of Sonoma County.

“It's pretty common,” Noh told me, in particular since the 11th-hour extension of a statewide protection for renters this spring. “I would say that after March, we started seeing a lot of notices.”

At the end of that month, hours before it was set to expire, California again extended its pandemic policy preventing some renters from being evicted, specifically those who had applied for rental assistance by March 31.

Setting aside that it’s unclear what will happen when the policy’s new and rapidly approaching July 1 expiration date arrives, the law has left many renters who thought they were protected vulnerable.

Notably, for the most part it covers those who’ve missed rent payments through March. Tenants who haven’t paid April, May or June can still be evicted, even if they’re waiting on rental assistance that might cover those months.

And, many of the eviction notices Sonoma County Legal Aid is seeing are only for nonpayment of rent since April. In one case two weeks ago, a landlord moved forward with an eviction for a tenant who was approved and issued for rental aid through June.

Ultimately, the judge stayed the case until the money came through, and then the eviction was dismissed.

With rental aid approved and the check already in the mail, Noh said that was a best-case scenario. (She also noted that despite the favorable circumstances in the case, the tenant, a monolingual Spanish speaker, could easily have faced eviction without a lawyer to help navigate the process.)

Slow-moving system

The extension of the state’s renter protections is in part a nod to the fact that many are still waiting on their applications to emergency rental aid programs to be processed.

While undoubtedly instrumental in keeping many struggling tenants in their homes over the course of the pandemic, the slow-moving system has also at times been a source of confusion and frustration for renters and landlords alike.

“We have cases where the application is approved but checks haven't yet been tendered, or applications that are still pending and haven't yet been determined,” Noh said. “Landlords have definitely gotten much more aggressive about trying to sue for just April forward to avoid those issues.”

The Sonoma County Emergency Rental Assistance Program has awarded $31,733,068 in rent and utility aid and paid 2,588 cases as of June 15. There are another 40 approved cases pending payment and 2,510 cases still under review.

The program has about $7.2 million remaining in funds, and the county is working on procuring more. County officials stopped accepting new applications in February, but there’s a waitlist.

By the end of March, the state’s own rental aid program had paid out fewer than half of those who’d applied for aid, and a June analysis by National Equity Atlas estimated that up to 33,000 first-time applicants will still be waiting in line after state eviction protections expire on July 1.

“People have been waiting months for their money,” DeMatteo said.

“Understandably, landlords are anxious. They have their bills they have to pay, they're not getting their rental income, and so, a tenant promising that the money's coming for so long, you could see how that could create a deterioration of the landlord tenant relationship just on its own.”

Possible loopholes

Besides the state policy, there are local ordinances in place to protect some renters. One emergency rule prevents eviction in certain cases where tenants can prove significant COVID-related income loss or medical expenses.

In February, Sonoma County also amended its COVID-19 eviction edict limiting landlords’ reasons to evict.

One allowable justification is if the property is removed from the rental market, a particularly popular pathway. While certainly legitimate in many cases, it can also be a loophole given how hard it is to monitor or prove if a landlord plans to turn around and put it back up for rent. (In Petaluma, organizers are pushing for a “just cause” policy that would help restrict this type of loophole permanently.)

Regardless, it can have devastating effects on renters struggling in the pandemic that is still raging on.

Brooke Arteaga, 58, had been renting her place in Petaluma for six years with few issues, but during the pandemic, she found herself in financial straits, exacerbated by a recent divorce.

Top Tips from Tenant Organizers and Housing Attorneys for Renters Facing Eviction

When possible, pay your current rent since pending rental aid applications aren’t an end-all be-all protection, especially for more recent months.

If you can’t pay your rent, and COVID-19 is a factor, gather as much documentation as possible showing pandemic-related financial losses or medical factors since Sonoma County has a local ordinance (6301) that offers some protection. Legal aid organizations can help prepare your defense.

Whenever possible seek help from legal aid or tenant rights organizations, and don’t wait until an eviction lawsuit is filed to reach out.

Sign up for the Sonoma County Rental Assistance Program (https://portal.neighborlysoftware.com/ERAP-SONOMACOUNTYCA/Participant) wait list if applicable since further policy extensions or changes and potential additional funding might extend protections.

In some cases, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission has been able to expedite aid for renters who are waiting on rental assistance and facing an eviction.

Though limited, check with local community organizations to see if other rental assistance is available.

Don’t self-evict if possible. If landlords don’t follow the notification procedures for eviction or there are inconsistencies or errors is the paperwork, like noting the wrong name, address, date or rent owed, the notices and proceedings can be at least temporarily invalidated, buying tenants time.

Talk to your neighbors, especially if you’re in an apartment complex, to see if others are facing similar issues.

Legal aid and tenant support organizations:

Legal Aid of Sonoma County (legalaidsc.org)

– Housing hotline: 707-843-4432; Urgent matters: 707-542-1290

– Address: 144 South E Street, Suite 100, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

– Client intake hours: Monday & Tuesday 9:15-11:30 am and 1:15-4:00 pm; Wednesday 9:15-11:30 am; Thursday 9:15-11:30 am and 1:15-4:00 pm

Sonoma County Tenants Union: (sonomatenants.org)

– Tenant hotline: 707-387-1968 (sctuhotline@gmail.com)

California Rural Legal Assistance: crla.org, 1-800-337-0690

Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California: fairhousingnorcal.org, 415-457-5025

Legal Services of Northern California: lsnc.net, 707-462-1471 for the office serving Mendocino and Lake counties

More resources on housing and the eviction process are available at www.lawhelpca.org/topic/housing.

She was approved for rental aid, a lifeline, but it took a while to go through. That was a frustration for the landlord, who began pressuring her to move out, and things escalated at the beginning of the year. She asked to have until the summer but was served with a 60-day notice to vacate and told the unit was being pulled from the rental market.

At the time she was recovering from a serious bout of COVID-19 and had recently lost her job as an in-home health care provider due to absenteeism.

“Literally I had no money, no place to go, and I’m having to look for a job,” said Arteaga, who told me she was receiving harassing texts from the landlord almost daily. “It was unbearable.”

Sonoma County Legal Aid was eventually able to buy Arteaga two extra months, until May 20, and through Facebook, she was lucky enough to find new housing in Camp Meeker.

“Me and my dog living in a car, that could have happened very easily,” Arteaga told me. “I never in my life thought I’d be in this position.”

It was a traumatizing experience for Arteaga, who struggled to get out of bed some days during the ordeal, overwhelmed by packing and looking for housing and a new job. The thought of having to leave Petaluma where her daughter and grandchildren live, and where another of her daughters is buried, was unbearable.

Limited options

Whatever one’s feelings on landlord-tenant tensions, it’s hard to deny the difficult position of many renters. Four in 10 Sonoma County residents are renters, more than half of whom were already rent burdened (spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities) before the pandemic.

Skyrocketing rent and limited housing stock, not to mention the black mark of an eviction severely restrict options for those in desperate or sudden need of a new home.

Indeed, a survey by the Bay Area Equity Atlas and North Bay Organizing Project found job loss and eviction to be the leading causes of homelessness in Sonoma County.

At the same time, the court process is stacked against renters. It moves fast, the paperwork is confusing, and tenants often aren’t aware of all their options unless they have legal representation, which is rare.

For that reason seeking counsel from legal aid organizations can be crucial, though I’ve heard from a number of renters how hard it can be to reach someone given demand.

“Basically, the whole system is set up against them, especially if they're disabled or senior or vulnerable or a monolingual Spanish speaker,” DeMatteo said.

Against that backdrop, some landlords exert extreme pressure on tenants. Avila of Sonoma County Tenants Union has seen a lot of situations where landlords try to skirt procedure hoping renters aren’t aware of the processes or will just bend under duress.

That was the case for one woman who reached out to me, out of options and forced out of her apartment after signing an unfavorable eviction settlement agreement she says in hindsight she didn’t fully understand.

“In that situation, tenants don't really feel like they have any power because essentially the landlords are the ones who provide them with a roof over their head,” Avila told me. “You’re super vulnerable.”

In March, California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a warning to eviction lawyers after reports of landlords filing false declarations in court to circumvent protections and evict residents.

Ultimately, those who’ve fallen through the cracks of the confusing patchwork of overlapping, amended, expiring and reinstated local and state ordinances only underscore the inadequacy of treating the symptoms rather than the roots of the deeper housing crisis.

When pandemic protections eventually do expire, “there will be an eviction cliff,” DeMatteo said.

“It’s already getting ugly, but it's going to get crazy.“

“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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