New tenant protections leave many Sonoma County renters vulnerable to eviction
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.)
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.”
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.