The clock could not have been ticking any louder. With only two hours before the end of this year’s legislative session, the California Assembly voted late Monday night to approve a new bill that will offer the state’s 4 million tenants some protection against eviction for the next five months if they can’t make full payment on their rent. Had the bill not passed—and been swiftly signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom— tenants who were behind in their rent due to the pandemic could have faced eviction proceeding the next morning.. That’s when the state’s moratorium against such evictions—enacted earlier this spring–expired.
Santa Barbara’s tag-team in Sacramento, State Assembly member Monique Limón and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who were closely involved in the bill’s passage, however, were not particularly thrilled with the results. “This doesn’t feel wonderful or great,” said Limón, who cosponsored the bill, AB 3088, and had a seat at the bargaining table as chair of the Assembly Banking Committee. “From my perspective, it’s not very satisfying,” added Jackson, who played a significant role as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We were not able to make a global settlement, but for the next few months we at least have this.”
The “this” in question was the subject of intense negotiations, deliberations, and lots of hardball lobbying between California’s powerful landlord lobby, the banking industry, and tenants’ rights advocates. Under the terms of the final compromise language, tenants who pay 25 percent of their monthly rent between now and the end of January cannot be evicted for failure to pay full rent so long as they notify their landlords that their ability to pay has been undermined because of the COVID crisis.
For tenants making over $100,000 a year, some form of documentation will be required. Under the moratorium that just expired, tenants were not required to pay any portion of their rent. And no court in California could process unlawful detainer claims. Under AB 3088, landlords will now be allowed to sue their tenants in small claims court for recovery of any and all unpaid rent beginning in March 2021.
The new law gives tenants the ability to derail evictions by notifying their landlords they can’t pay the full amount because of COVID while allowing landlords to serve such notices on the same tenants every month between now until January. It does give tenants 15 days to respond, as opposed to the customary three, and it increases the penalties tenfold on landlords attempting to execute “self help” evictions—by turning off utilities or other extra-legal means.
For Limón and Jackson, the stakes were too high not to make a deal. “We’re talking about 4 million people,” Limón said. “That’s ten percent of the state population.” Those evicted, she said, would join the ranks of the homeless, thus adding to the public health threat posed by COVID already.
Both had hoped to provide some degree of mortgage relief for smaller mom-and-pop landlords who are caught between their banks and their tenants. If smaller landlords could defray—not forgive—mortgage payments to a later date, they would be in a better position to cut their tenants slack.
“The banks said, ‘No, we’re not going to accommodate anyone unless we feel like it,’” Jackson said. The bill does include language that requires banks to issue explanations for any denial they make to requests for mortgage relief. But as Limón stressed, “Make no mistake, this is not mortgage relief.”
Both Limón and Jackson referred to the bill as “stop-gap,” and “interim.” When the Legislature reconvenes in January, she said, the issue will need to be re-addressed. Jackson added, “Or maybe by then, people will be wearing their god damn face masks and socially distancing and businesses can get back open again.”
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