Sonoma County health officer, housing rights advocates speak out in favor of eviction bans and other tenant safeguards
Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase long ago emerged as the county’s most public voice on epidemiology, pandemic interventions and detective work needed to confront the deadly coronavirus. On Monday morning, Mase weighed in on a subject that at first blush sounded outside her purview: rental evictions.
“We need strong protections,” she said on a Zoom webinar organized by Assemblyman David Chiu. “Without these strong protections, evictions are likely to surge, leading to increased spread of COVID-19. As you can imagine, it will be very difficult to shelter in place if you are out of housing or homeless. And evictions would overburden our health care system, with more people being prone to being ill.”
Mase summed up the risk as potentially fatal for displaced tenants: “Evictions could potentially result in loss of life as a result of all these factors.”
Her potent comments are in line with the county’s Board of Supervisors, which in late March imposed a ban on evictions that won’t expire until 60 days after the expiration of the local health emergency ― a March 2 order that is likely remain in place into the foreseeable future.
The eviction ban also directed the Sonoma County Housing Authority to extend deadlines for housing assistance recipients and applicants.
The local safeguards have existed under a similar state moratorium that is expiring on Aug. 14, unless California legislators can produce a stopgap of their own.
The issue continues to be a divisive one, with landlord groups opposing rules that they say are heavy handed and curb their ability to manage properties that many owners rely on as essential income. Many point out that not all property owners have the same level of resources.
“We know smaller, condominium-type owners simply don’t have the same resources as larger landlords,” said Councilman Jack Tibbetts, of Santa Rosa, which like many cities, also approved its own layer of curbs on evictions.
But housing rights advocates say the local and state rules don’t go far enough. For one thing, the current order in Sonoma County requires renters to demonstrate that their inability to pay rent is due to the coronavirus.
“It puts the onus on the tenant to prove the source of their condition, and puts the onus on them to know the law, to know that indeed they are protected from evictions,” said Rachel Marcus, a Sonoma County Tenants Union board member who has been working closely with the North Bay Organizing Project on the issue.
To Marcus, it’s part of a general failure by local leaders to fully inform renters of their rights. “We’ve gotten calls and emails from tenants getting pressured, or who have received informal eviction notices and think they are about to lose their homes,” she said.
Her biggest concern is the 60-day window. She insists it’s a weakness that will leave thousands of families exposed to evictions a mere two months after the county lifts its health emergency, whenever that happens.
Even if those families have returned to full employment, it’s hard to imagine they will have enough savings to cover perhaps months of missed paychecks and skipped rent, Marcus said.
It’s “simply not feasible. How can someone double or triple their income overnight? And it doesn’t prohibit late fees or rent increases,” she said.
The county and state are both looking at stronger measures.
In Sonoma County, the Board of Supervisors is set to discuss an extension of renter protections at its meeting Thursday. The board first revisited its ordinance on June 23, but didn’t take any formal action.
Supervisor James Gore, for one, believes the board will pass something substantial this week. “Even though we always ask questions and talk things out, I don’t see this changing, because we have already given direction to staff,” he said.
Gore acknowledged the needs of local tenants, but said supervisors must account for the rights of property owners, too.
“We do not want individuals who are barely getting by falling into homelessness,” Gore said. “But on the other side, on my street, I have a neighbor who has had a lot of issues with the law. His landlord told me, ‘Because of your order, I can’t evict him.’ The problem is, sometimes with these disasters, we don’t have the capacity on the fly to use a scalpel. We have to use a mallet.”
Gore said he would rather focus on a rental assistance program than eviction moratoriums. Tibbetts, the Santa Rosa councilman, said he has introduced a similar concept at the city level. His idea is to use a portion of the approximately $95 million 2017 wildfire settlement money from PG&E, and work with a private banking partner to establish low-interest tenant loans, in the 2.5-4.5% range, with forgiving terms for repayment.