What you need to know if you’re a renter during the coronavirus pandemic
More than 1 million Californians have applied for unemployment assistance as coronavirus cases have surged in recent weeks.
The pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused have led many renters to wonder how they’re going to pay rent on April 1 — after weeks of being asked to stay home and, in some cases, not work to slow the spread of the virus.
From eviction bans to mortgage relief, here’s a guide to protections for renters and homeowners in California.
Do I still owe rent?
Yes. No government program passed to date relieves California renters of their duty to pay. Even in Los Angeles and other cities where renter relief efforts have been approved, tenants are required to ultimately pay back rent in full.
But what if I can’t pay? Will I get evicted?
The federal government, state government and individual cities and counties have offered many protections for tenants at risk of getting evicted. But there is no blanket ban preventing the legal process of eviction across California, and the strength of the protections that exist depends on where you live and who your landlord is.
All renters in the state, however, are entitled to a delay of an eviction through May 31 if they can’t pay rent because of financial or medical circumstances caused by the coronavirus. To qualify, renters must have lost their job or hours at work, or have had to take care of children whose schools are closed or family members with COVID-19. Tenants also must notify their landlords in writing no later than seven days after their rent is due — or by April 8 or May 8 — if they’re unable to pay.
Come June 1, affected tenants can still be evicted if they didn’t pay rent in April or May.
What about protections from the federal government?
As part of the coronavirus economic stimulus package signed by President Trump last week, the federal government has offered additional safeguards for renters. These provisions, however, are confusing and it will be hard for tenants to figure out if they qualify.
The package included a 120-day eviction moratorium for tenants who can’t pay rent. But the moratorium only applies to renters in properties — both single-family homes and apartments — whose owners have federally backed mortgages. Every renter who lives in federally subsidized low-income housing also is automatically covered, said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.
Overall, about 40% of the nation’s single-family homes and about half of multifamily homes qualify, with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or other federal sources, according to the National Housing Law Project and National Multifamily Housing Council. But renters have no easy way of knowing whether their landlord has such a mortgage.
“From the tenant perspective, it’s very difficult to understand whether you’re protected,” Roller said.
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What about protections from cities and counties in California?
More than 80 local governments — including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco — have passed some version of a temporary ban on evictions, according to the California Apartment Assn., the state’s largest landlord group. These measures provide protections beyond those offered by the federal and state governments.
In the city of Los Angeles, renters who cannot pay their rent because of economic hardship or because their health has been affected by the coronavirus are not allowed to be evicted. Neither are Angelenos who have had family members move in because of the virus and increase the number of people that would otherwise be permitted under their lease.
Tenants in L.A. have up to a year after the city’s emergency order expires to pay back rent. All late fees for nonpayment will be waived.
Also protected from eviction are tenants whose landlords were planning to pull rentals off the market under the Ellis Act or had wanted to displace their tenants by moving in themselves.
On Monday, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a separate executive order preventing the landlords of hundreds of thousands of apartments across the city from increasing rents during the pandemic. Oakland approved a less strict policy as part of its eviction moratorium, which limits the ability for landlords to hike rents in properties covered by the city’s rent control policies.
What happens if my landlord tries to evict me anyway?
Los Angeles renters can contact the city’s housing agency for assistance. Tenants in L.A. and elsewhere in California also can use the moratoriums approved by their city, or rules approved statewide, as a defense against an eviction in court.
Also, an eviction filing might not go far right now. Adhering to calls for social distancing, many courts across California have greatly restricted their activities, including the ability to hear eviction cases. In Los Angeles, such cases have been suspended until further notice except for emergencies.
In short, many overlapping government programs provide some protections for tenants against getting evicted right now. But none ultimately waive rent payments, and just about all of the protections on the books require tenants to demonstrate how they have been harmed by the coronavirus.
The best way for a renter to prevent an eventual eviction is to make sure they’ve saved all of their documentation, including employment and health records.
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What will homeowners get?
Homeowners are getting more than renters, as both the federal and state governments have secured different forms of financial assistance.
Under the federal plan, homeowners with federally backed mortgages cannot be forced into foreclosure for at least two months. Additionally, homeowners who have suffered economic hardship over the virus can request a six-month deferral of their mortgage payments — without penalties, interest or late fees.
Also, last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that four of the nation’s largest banks — Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase — as well as 200 state-chartered banks and credit unions will allow affected homeowners in California to defer payments for at least three months. Late payments would not be reported to credit agencies.
For landlords, under a plan offered by the federal government, apartment owners with federally backed mortgages can defer their payments for three months. But if they accept that relief, they also have to agree not to evict their tenants and must waive late fees.
What are landlords doing?
Some landlords are offering renters relief beyond what’s required under the law. The California Apartment Assn. is advising its members to halt all rent increases and evictions for those affected by the coronavirus, plus waive late fees and offer flexible payment plans. These are just guidelines, however.
What’s the bottom line?
While the federal government has increased unemployment benefits and is issuing a one-time direct payout of up to $1,200 for most adults, many housing advocates — including landlord groups — believe that’s not enough money to ensure renters, particularly in high-cost states like California, can pay all their bills.
“There isn’t direct rental assistance for everybody who needs it,” said Carol Galante, faculty director at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. “I think that’s a mistake.”
Homeowners, on the other hand, are likely to fare a bit better.
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