Amid Contention, Emeryville City Council Continues Efforts to Deter Evictions During COVID-19 Pandemic
On Wednesday, Apr. 7 the city of Emeryville held a virtual City Council meeting with a substantial agenda. Arguably the most important item discussed was the city’s three-pronged approach to assist residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and facing pending or even overdue rent payments.
At the meeting, the City Council extended the deadline of the city’s moratorium on evictions, approved a $400,000 grant program to help renters most in need and proposed a 12-month repayment plan.
At the next City Council meeting on Apr. 21, the City Council will vote to approve an amendment to the moratorium to cover all evictions, and not just those related to nonpayment of rent due to hardship caused by COVID-19.
City Council extends eviction moratorium, considers additional measures
Adopted at the Mar. 19 meeting, the emergency moratorium on residential and commercial evictions became effective immediately. It was passed in parallel with a regular ordinance — identical to the emergency moratorium — that will go into effect on May 7. Given the ongoing state of emergency, the City Council voted to extend the deadline for the moratorium from May 31 to Jun. 30.
City Council also considered strengthening the moratorium to provide stronger protections for tenants during the COVID-19 crisis. At the Apr. 7 meeting, City Councilmember John Bauters proposed an amendment that would expand the scope of the moratorium for residential units. While the original moratorium only covered evictions due to nonpayment of rent, the amendment would protect tenants from all evictions, except evictions that are “necessary to protect health, safety or welfare.”
While local tenant advocacy groups urged City Council to further protections in the city’s moratorium, Emeryville City Attorney Michael Guina cautioned that amending the ordinance to cover all evictions could put the city in legal risk.
“The council had adopted the current urgency ordinance to be in line with [the Governor’s] executive order,” Guina said at the meeting. “That provides us with additional legal protection in case our urgency ordinance is challenged. The ordinance exposes the city to litigation for claims where we will not be able to rely on the executive order and the protections of that.”
Bauters expressed his belief that Gov. Gavin Newsom has not taken adequate steps to protect tenants. As a result, cities were left scrambling to interpret the limits of the governor’s executive order.
Tenant attorneys, housing associations & renters weigh in
The East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) advocated for extending the moratorium to cover all evictions via a letter. “Landlords will preserve their right to sue on these issues after the state of emergency passes and the moratorium is lifted,” the letter stated.
Their letter recommended that renters be excused if back rent is accrued during the state of emergency. “Any and all rent accrued during this moratorium should only be recoverable via small claims or regular civil action (Not unlawful detainer) after the landlord has attempted a reasonable repayment plan and provided tenant written notice of this ordinance,” the letter further stated.
“Landlords should not be able to evict for any reason right now,” stated a letter signed by four Emeryville residents who asked City Council to take a bold step and waive all rent payments during the pandemic. “The City Council has an opportunity to act now to prevent a wave of homelessness and economic stagnation,” wrote Emeryville resident and graduate student Nicole Florentino.
“Based on existing law, cities and municipalities are absolutely able to go farther than the governor did to protect their residents, economically and physically, during this time of crisis,” stated EBCLC staff attorney Shallyn Wells. “We are absolutely advocating that rent be canceled and that homeowners and landlords, particularly small landlords, are able to get mortgage relief.”
“It is so rare that anybody sues based on temporary ordinances,” argued Leah Simon-Weisberg, Legal Director for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “Moratoriums almost never get litigated because they’re completely defensible, and I think that the risk of losing is very low.”
Pushback from rental property owners
East Bay Rental Housing Association (EBRHA), an organization that advocates for smaller rental property owners, suggested the state should create a rent relief fund for tenants unable to pay their rent.
“The problem is if you look at the statewide and local efforts, they are pretty much focused on the concerns of renters,” said EBRHA President Wayne Rowland. “I think that’s okay, but I think there’s room for local city councils to figure out ways to make sure property owners can also stay in their properties.”
Rowland raised attention to the fact that despite the pandemic, property owners aren’t relieved from maintaining their properties. Though in vocal support of renters’ protections, Rowland was shocked to find out that Emeryville City Council extended the deadline of their moratorium on evictions. He said this decision could spell trouble for rental property owners who are still required to pay their property taxes.
“If it’s paid late, there are very big penalties,” said Rowland. “Why wouldn’t the state or the county be willing to change the deadline on the property taxes? If renters and property owners are making sacrifices, why not the county too?”
Alameda County Treasurer-Tax Collector Henry “Hank” Levy advised property owners to not miss the Apr. 10 delinquent deadline. “Neither I or the Alameda County have the right to change the deadline,” Levy said in the above video. “I feel that the best way to give relief is to provide penalty and interest waivers to taxpayers who have been directly impacted. If you experience financial hardship due to COVID-19, I will work with you.” Levy stated he could grant waivers based on reasonable cause and individual circumstances.
“We’re all in this together and renters are not going to do very well if property owners suffer and lose their properties,” said Rowland. “Everyone is going to have to make a little sacrifice and they have to make sure that they don’t call upon certain people to make far more sacrifices than others.”
City Council passes grant program for low-income renters
Emeryville’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program aims to prevent potential homelessness and displacement of existing Emeryville tenants due to the pandemic. The program will use $400,000 from the city’s $3.4 million Disaster Fund and a $31,500 donation from East Bay Community Energy. According to Councilmember Bauters, who authored the ordinance, the city will open applications before the moratorium ends on Jun. 30.
Though the number of grants awarded depends on how much rent each eligible tenant owes, the city anticipates anywhere from 150 to several hundred rental assistance payments. The payments would be given to low-income households to cover potentially two months’ rent, including Section 8 tenants.
Although it’s difficult to predict exactly how high demand will be, the program’s coordinators predict only a small portion of Emeryville’s population will be eligible for the grants, specifically those making 100 percent or below the county’s Area Median Income (AMI).
“We probably are only going to be able to serve approximately 2 percent of the population in Emeryville,” said Valerie Bernardo, the city’s Community Economic Development Coordinator. “We do anticipate that the program will probably be very overprescribed.”
Grant applicants must also have:
- Verification of COVID-19 financial impact
“They must identify a documented loss in household income due to COVID-19 pandemic and they must do a self-certification of their inability to pay rent,” clarified Bernardo.
According to the program guidelines, if the tenants’ rent exceeds the maximum monthly rent (set by the State of California Department of Housing and Community Development). for the applicable unit size (as detailed in the graphic above), the tenant will be required to pay the difference to the landlord before the city can distribute the grant(s).
Those who are not eligible for the program are: tenants who receive assistance from another rental assistance program, tenants who are the immediate relatives of the owner, tenants living in a single owner-occupied residence when the owner-occupant rents or leases two or fewer bedrooms to one or more tenants (they don’t have a valid Residential Landlord Business license).
Nonprofit BACS to implement grant program
Bay Area Community Services (BACS) will be implementing and administering the rental assistance program. CEO Jamie Almanza said the Emergency Rental Assistance Program has the opportunity to save tenancy for Emeryville residents. Although the contract is still being negotiated, BACS could receive $52,000 for its services, approximately 13 percent of the amount allotted for the program.
Along with its management team, BACS will dedicate one to two full-time staff to administer the grant program. BACS’ job would be to accept and review applications, verify information, issue payments and directly communicate with tenants and landlords on the application and payment status. They would also assist in working with local city staff on collecting participant data related to evaluating the program’s effectiveness.
Almanza said BACS will be operated similarly to the nonprofit’s Keep Oakland Housed program. Launched in 2018, Keep Oakland Housed partners with other nonprofits to provide financial assistance to renters on the brink of eviction. The program was credited with preventing as many as 4,000 Oakland residents from becoming unsheltered. As part of its COVID-19 relief fund, the City of Oakland recently designated $200,000 to Keep Oakland Housed to help prevent evictions.
“There are two components of Keep Oakland Housed that will be happening in Emeryville,” said Almanza. “It will be both the issuance of the financial subsidy for that individual or family and then the supportive service to make sure that the individual or family is really shored up.”
Council proposes 12-month repayment plan for Emeryville renters
Though not without more contention, the City Council proposed a repayment plan for tenants to pay back rent accrued during the state of emergency to their landlords. If passed, landlords must offer repayment plans to tenants who failed to pay rent before serving a three-day eviction notice (during which the tenant must pay the total sum demanded).
The tenant would be obligated to repay the total sum of unpaid rent that accrued between Apr. 1 of this year and the time when the governor’s order ends. After the state of emergency is declared over, tenants will have up to 12 months to pay landlords any owed rent. According to Councilmember John Bauters, city staff plans to develop additional regulatory details, including whether interest can be charged, the application of late fees and the payment amounts.
East Bay Community Law Center staff attorney Shallyn Wells believes there is a better alternative to a repayment plan. Instead of landlords seeking rent through a three-day notice and potentially displacing tenants, Wells said landlords could seek rent through a small claims action. “They could still get a judgment against someone for consumer debt, but they couldn’t kick them out of their home for that debt,” said Wells. “It goes farther than offering a repayment plan.”
The proposed plan would allow landlords to petition the city for a complete or partial exemption from having to offer a repayment plan. For example, an exemption might be made for a small landlord to offer a six-month repayment plan, instead of a 12-month one. Smaller landlords — generally seen as those who own four or less units — might carry heavier financial burdens in the face of a 12-month repayment plan, potentially resulting in loss of the property due to the inability to pay a mortgage.
If tenants and landlords cannot negotiate a repayment plan for the missed rent payments, the city would refer the parties to ECHO Housing for mediation.
The item was unanimously approved at the Apr. 7 meeting and will be brought back to City Council at the Apr. 21 meeting for a second reading and a vote to pass the plan.