For the next two months, landlords throughout Santa Barbara County will not be allowed to evict tenants who could not pay their rent because the coronavirus knocked the economic legs out from underneath them. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Barbara City Council both passed separate proposals on Tuesday, March 24. Although there was considerable debate over the implications, both elected bodies voted unanimously to approve the eviction moratorium. Tenants cannot be evicted, they agreed, since California’s Governor Gavin Newsom ordered most of California’s 40 million residents to stay home for the foreseeable future — many incurring devastating economic costs.
The City Council ordinance was more detailed. City tenants must provide documentation, for example, demonstrating that their failure to pay rent is due to the virus. Did they lose their job or experience a significant loss of earning power because of COVID-19? They must also give landlords 20 days’ notice that they would not be paying their rent.
That’s the sweet version of what happened. The reality, of course, promises to be neither. The discussion in front of the City Council, at times heated, centered on what rules the council should adopt to ensure landlords would be paid back in a timely fashion. The initial proposal required tenants to pay their landlords back over a six-month period after the expiration of the rent moratorium on May 31. That would amount to a 30 percent rent increase. Most councilmembers agreed that would pose an economic burden few tenants — whether residential or commercial — could shoulder.
Both elected bodies practiced social distancing throughout their deliberations and no members of the public were present, though they could comment remotely. Only three supervisors showed up in person for the board meeting, so they could sit farther apart. Although all seven city councilmembers showed up in the flesh, two — Alejandra Gutierrez and Michael Jordan — sat off the dais at tables facing their council colleagues. Twenty people showed up telephonically, and most of them voiced objections to the proposal. Their concerns could be heard via a squawk box perched on the council dais.
Property owners — both “mom-and-pop” residential landlords and mega commercial owners — said they were unfairly being forced to assume the burden of what’s quickly becoming an economic catastrophe. Jim Knell of Sima Management — one of the major downtown property owners — said he still has to pay mortgages. If he doesn’t, he explained, the banks will come after him and his credit rating will drop. “How do you protect me from that?” he demanded.
Another Sima representative argued that behemoth tenants such as Apple and Amazon should not enjoy the same protections designed to shield vulnerable individuals and small businesses. A representative from Sierra Management, which has 1,200 rental units, argued that property managers have all kinds of expenses not having to do with profit or bank notes: plumbers, landscapers, painters, accountants. Without rental revenues, they’ll all be out of work, she predicted. Others took a more combative tone, predicting some tenants would take unfair advantage. “If the city tells people they can loot without any consequences,” said one landlord, “then they’re going to do so.”
While councilmembers had differing opinions about what the long-term unintended consequences might be, they remained focused on the right-here, right-now threat of economic ruin the pandemic is wreaking. Some, like Meagan Harmon, challenged landlords to negotiate equitable deals with their tenants during the two-month moratorium. If they did not, she stated, she and her fellow councilmembers would be watching. Some councilmembers thought Governor Newsom had enacted emergency mortgage relief as well, to protect landlords from renters not making their monthly payments on time. City Attorney Ariel Calonne strongly disagreed. Having read Newsom’s executive orders “more than 100 times,” Calonne opined, “I think it’s intended to offer relief, but I don’t think it does.”
Correction: The story’s subtitle was updated to clarify that the eviction moratorium is not a rent moratorium.