By Reggie Ellis
TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County has not moved forward on a request to pass a local eviction moratorium saying that three recent statewide orders have already done the job for them. But one county supervisor says the Governor’s office and court system’s orders have not gone far enough.
District 4 Supervisor Eddie Valero said a local eviction moratorium would provide protections for the county’s most vulnerable residents, including farmworkers, undocumented workers and those without checking accounts. He said the county had an opportunity to protect Tulare County residents by securing their home to comply with the Governor’s order to shelter in place, to prevent them from becoming homeless and without access to utilities to adhere to health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Many residents live paycheck to paycheck or are one paycheck away from homelessness,” Valero said. “Many have been furloughed and are at risk of being evicted from their home if they cannot pay their rent. This is a real opportunity to protect our most vulnerable residents.”
Valero made his plea at the March 26 meeting but two weeks later the item had not progressed and had yet to be scheduled for an upcoming meeting. The issue of evictions hit home for Valero who said he understood the issue from both sides. He shared that his cousin recently lost her job and was unable to pay rent and that his parents were local landlords whose primary income comes from rent checks.
“Things are changing every day but we are required to move forward as the storm rages on,” Valero said.
The debate is over two separate yet connected executive orders and a related court order. On March 16, the Governor signed an order allowing local jurisdictions to halt evictions. On March 27, the Governor built on that by signing another order which banned the enforcement of eviction orders for renters. On April 6, the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body for the state’s court system, issued an emergency court order that suspends all evictions, with the exception of those to protect the health and safety of other residents. The rule prohibits the court from issuing summons on eviction filings by landlords and from holding hearings on evictions during the state of emergency.
“They do not establish any tenant rights, address requirements for notifying landlords, or how repayment will be handled,” Valero said.
A social justice group argees that the Governor and court orders do not go far enough in protecting renters because it places the burden on the tenant to prove their income has been effected by COVID-19 instead of an all-out ban on evictions until the pandemic has passed. Blanca Escobedo, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, echoed Valero’s comments and provided the supervisors with a draft eviction moratorium that goes beyond the statewide orders.
The emergency response ordinance would ban all evictions for failure to pay regardless if the tenant can prove it was due to the pandemic, removing the documentation requirement for tenants, prohibit landlords from assessing late fees during the State of Emergency, allows for at least 180 days after the emergency ends for renters to payback owed rent, and requires the landlord to establish a repayment plan.
“Low income residents are going to be impacted first and feel it more,” Escobedo told the Board of Supervisors at the April 7 meeting. “If a tenant has an eviction on record, it makes it harder to get another place. If nothing is done, we could see a wave of evictions after the court order and Governor’s order expire. This would allow landlords and tenants to work together on payment plans.”
Leadership Counsel also helped create a flyer, along with several other advocacy groups in California, listing tenant protections under the Governor and the court’s actions for COVID-19. The groups recommend paying rent on time as the best way to protect yourself, if you are able to do so. If not, the groups say it is important for renters to contact their landlord in writing before rent is due, keep copies of the letters and responses from the landlord and document your loss of income. Loss of income documents can include pay stubs, notes from a boss or supervisor, bank statements, notice of school closures and medical documents.
While these tips are good advice for most renters, Escobedo said they often put an unfair burden on workers such as farm laborers who get paid in cash, don’t have bank accounts or have jobs in the gig economy.
“We don’t want any local resolutions to include unnecessary documentation requirements,” Escobedo said. “The Governor’s order made it seem like there were protections for everyone and many tenants are under the impression they are protected, but some people will be unable to prove they had a loss of income with documentation.”
If residents do receive an eviction notice, the groups say tenants should seek legal help at LawHelp.org. Those with federally subsidized housing, such as Section 8, low-income tax credit or public housing, or if the landlord has a federally backed mortgage, may have more protections for nonpayment of rent. The federal government issued an eviction moratorium on March 27 which will remain in place until July 25. The order prohibits landlord’s from even filing a new eviction case during this time and from charging the tenant any fees or interest for late payments. The ruling does not forgive the rent payments and does not apply to evictions based on violations of housing rules or rental agreements, such as criminal activity.
“Nothing in this chapter shall relieve the tenant of liability for unpaid rent that has accrued during this period, which the landlord may seek after expiration of the State of Emergency,” the draft resolution states. “The rent may be collected as any other debt owed but not through the unlawful detainer process.”
Call for order
Pedro Hernandez, a former community organizer with Leadership Counsel currently working for California Audubon, urged the supervisors to hold a virtual town hall to understand the scope of this issue and the potential impacts on the health of local residents, the county and region as a whole.
“This is an important statewide debate and the worse is yet to come,” Hernandez said.
Andrea Kelly of Tulare, a community coordinator for FoodLink of Tulare County, said she has seen the number of people lining up at the food bank triple in the last few weeks and urged the supervisors to use their authority to pass an eviction moratorium.
“I can only imagine other basic needs they are seeking at this time,” Kelly said. “Make sure everyone has shelter and is not fighting COVID out on the streets.”
Mayra Becerra, a member of the Ivanhoe Community Council, said failure to pass a moratorium could lead to more people ending up on the streets, adding to Visalia’s already overwhelming issue of homelessness. She cautioned the board about ignoring a problem that will only exacerbate another growing problem.
“This board needs to be proactive instead of reactive,” Becerra said. “We need to get renters help now so that they know they will be safe.”
In an interview after the meeting, Escobedo said she reached out to each of the supervisors individually and said most of them said they felt the statewide orders were stringent enough to provide local residents with protections from eviction. District 1 Supervisor Kuyler Crocker did ask staff to bring back a report with more information on a moratorium.
Supervisor Amy Shuklian mentioned that there are nonprofits in Tulare County who provide rental assistance throughout the year. Mary Jennings, executive director for the Visalia Emergency Aid Council (VEAC), said her organization is one of many receiving rental assistance funding through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP). The program is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and provides a dozen Tulare County organizations with $412,000 annually to help residents with food, shelter and utility needs, according to United Way of Tulare County. Jennings said all of the rental assistance funding in Tulare County had to be spent prior to the end of March and the program has not been reauthorized by the federal government yet.
“It’s pretty hard to come by,” Jennings said. “Hopefully EFSP will get funded again quickly.”
Escobedo said even if there was money available it wouldn’t be enough to address the wave of workers who have either lost their jobs or may soon be laid off during the pandemic. Escobedo suggested the county also create a rental assistance program to pick up where the nonprofits cannot.
“It shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of nonprofits to help residents,” Escobedo said. “If the county is not protecting the most vulnerable populations then they aren’t doing their job properly.”
Already in order
The closest county to have any type of local eviction moratorium is Kern County, where the city of Delano passed a temporary moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent for residential tenants affected by COVID-19 on March 27. The moratorium will expire when the state or city lifts its declaration of emergency. To the north, the city of Fresno passed a moratorium stating that no residential tenant, and even some commercial tenants, can be evicted for loss of income related to a business closure, loss of hours or wages, layoffs or out-of-pocket medical costs caused by the pandemic. The moratorium was recently extended by the Fresno City Council. Fresno County went one step further saying any residential or commercial tenant who can demonstrate their inability to pay rent is a direct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be evicted. The moratorium was passed on March 24 and will remain in effect until May 31, when it can be extended by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.
Reina Castellano of Visalia said she was proud that Fresno not only passed a local moratorium but is working with local nonprofits to make sure there is a fund to help the immigrant community with rent and other bills. She said many farmworkers are undocumented so they will not receive any unemployment benefits or a stimulus check if they are laid off.
“They would have to incur larger expenses such as daycare and food for their families [without any income],” Castellano said.