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Sonoma County seeks to protect renters from eviction amid coronavirus pandemic

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Sonoma County supervisors took action Tuesday to alleviate some short-term fears surrounding the burgeoning economic fallout from the coronavirus, unanimously approving a measure that seeks to protect tenants countywide from eviction during the emergency.

The move is the first by county supervisors to address the deepening financial toll of the pandemic and the strict measures put in place to slow its spread.

With nonessential businesses shuttered, and many others doing just a fraction of their normal business as a result of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing rules, some economists are predicting 20%  unemployment nationally, and California had already seen a 43% jump in unemployment claims before shelter-in-place orders took effect last week.

The dire situation required immediate action, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said Tuesday, during the Board of Supervisors meeting.

“This will reassure tenants that we care, that they will not be kicked out amid a pandemic situation,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom opened the door to such a move by municipalities and counties with an executive order last week, and Sonoma County was among a growing group of entities to take advantage in the days since.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterey, San Mateo, San Joaquin, Butte, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties had all passed similar measures by the end of the day Tuesday, according to the California State Association of Counties.

Supervisors met Tuesday over the phone, a historic first made possible by Newsom order allowing counties to host virtual meetings. The hearing featured recordings from members of the public urging board members to pass the ordinance.

Thousands of county residents have lost or are at risk of losing their jobs in the coming weeks, and many have already lost the ability to pay rent.

Hopkins called the comments “heartbreaking.”

“People have no safety net right now,” she said via text message.

The county’s ordinance offers legal protection should a landlord and tenant end up in court with eviction proceedings. The protections extend 60 days beyond the end of the local emergency declaration.

Chief Deputy County Counsel Alegría De La Cruz said the ordinance governs all nine local cities and unincorporated areas. The County Counsel’s Office consulted cities and towns in the county about the rule, County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said.

The ordinance does not relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent, and it raises the specter of stiff penalties for landlords, who could be liable in civil court for triple damages if found to be in violation.

Zane called that section of the ordinance harsh.

County supervisors struggled at first to pass the measure, which required a four-fifths vote. Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane highlighted lack of protections for property owners, as universal mortgage relief isn’t yet on the table nationally and the county has not moved to waive or delay property tax payments.

“There’s no property tax relief. There’s no mortgage relief in effect,” Rabbitt said. “We’re doing this first and hoping.”

Local property owner Connor Dibble put the problem for landlords in perspective via an email to board members.

“If I can’t kick renters out for failing to pay rent, then how can you repossess my property if I fail to pay property taxes?” he said. “And when I get foreclosed on, then what happens to the renters?”

Zane said landowners would be left in a tight spot under the protections.

“How do we fiscally support landlords, who may be using rent from a property to pay their own mortgage or their own retirement?” she said.

But residents submitted numerous emails urging supervisors to act quickly, even as Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick has announced he won’t enforce evictions amid the shelter-in-place order.

“Halting evictions, as some other cities have done, is vital to the well-being of our community, given that many low-wage workers are without income due to shelter-in-place orders,” Angelica Tercero said. “We can’t increase the number of people who are homeless during this pandemic.”

Supervisors eventually agreed to review the measure June 2, offering political cover for board members worried about the consequences of the regulation.

“Whatever decision we make is going to hurt somebody financially,” Rabbitt said.

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