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California Lawmakers, Trying to Stop Evictions, Still Won’t Cancel Rent

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Under a new bill, tenants would not be evicted for missing rent payments.

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For years, California has been gripped by a housing-affordability and homelessness crisis, which has only been amplified over the past three months by a global pandemic. As the state begins to reopen, emergency measures designed to help renters will lapse, and evictions will mount.

“There is no evidence that state or local leaders have begun to plan for what now appears to be an inevitable intensification of what was already a humanitarian crisis,” UCLA professor and public-interest attorney Gary Blasi said last month when he warned of a flood of evictions in coming months.

Five legislators finally did act on Wednesday, introducing a bill that would make it temporarily illegal for landlords to evict tenants who haven’t paid rent during the pandemic. If the bill passes, it would undoubtedly help keep unemployed renters — a number that totals 449,000 in Los Angeles County alone — in their homes at a time when California cities cannot afford to have more people on their streets.

But Assembly Bill 1436 would not provide rent forgiveness or relief in the form of cash assistance, which renters have been demanding since March. Landlords would still be allowed to collect rent through other means, like small-claims court, says Sasha Harnden, a policy advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty, which is sponsoring the bill.

“We were already struggling before the pandemic. What’s going to happen when I get a bill for past-due rent?” said Imperial Beach renter Patricia Mendoza, holding back tears. “How am I going to pay that?”

Mendoza, a single mother who was furloughed in March, then laid off in April, joined a press briefing Wednesday to announce the bill. She called it “an important step” when more are needed.

There’s a patchwork of temporary rules and laws in place to help renters across California impacted by the coronavirus, but there are also a lot of gaps. Most significantly, even though renters can delay payments to landlords right now, they still have to eventually payback what they owe, and the governor has not stopped property owners from filing eviction cases in court.

On April 6, the Judicial Council of California suspended all hearings on eviction cases, preventing “an eviction tsunami that should have hit L.A. County the first few weeks of April,” says Elena Popp, an eviction defense attorney in Los Angeles.

The rule is set to expire 90 days after the governor’s state-of-emergency declaration is lifted. At that point, Popp says cities without strong tenant protections will face what she calls Tsunami No. 2. “Much more must be done to protect tenants from displacement,” she says.

In the city of San Francisco, supervisors voted Tuesday to permanently bar landlords from evicting tenants who haven’t paid rent, even after the pandemic ends. But like AB 1436, tenants would still have to pay back what they owe over time. The city of Los Angeles is moving to create a $100 million rent-assistance program using federal relief funds, enough to help 74,074 renters.

If signed into law, AB 1436 would be in effect for 90 days after the state’s COVID-19 emergency order expires.

In his May report, Blasi concludes that the most direct strategy to reduce evictions for the nonpayment of rent is what activists have been demanding since the pandemic started: eliminate the need to make rent payments at all.