When Covid-19 halted California’s economy, state officials promised to prevent evictions and defend tenants’ rights. But a dozen renters and their attorneys told the Guardian that some landlords are proceeding to expel them from their homes despite the new regulations, indicating there are significant gaps in the protections.
Those tenants include a pregnant woman, a cancer patient, an elderly woman, a mother of six, several newly unemployed low-wage workers and others vulnerable to Covid-19.
Unable to pay rent in April, they have faced eviction notices on their doors, police officers attempting to remove them, pressure from property owners to immediately vacate and written demands from landlords spreading falsehoods about the emergency laws. Some tenants said they were moving out as a result, becoming homeless amid a pandemic.
“We want to pay, but we don’t have the money,” said Virginia Gómez, a 51-year-old Los Angeles woman threatened with eviction from her home of three years. The property owner of her building last week repeatedly called police to try to remove her and her six children after she couldn’t immediately pay full rent due. “I told the police, ‘You guys are wearing masks and gloves, but you want to throw us out to the streets when the virus is out there?’ How are we supposed to ‘stay at home’ when they kick us out?”
As California prepared to implement a shelter-in-place order to stop the spread of the virus, government leaders acknowledged that rent would be an urgent and vast problem. In March, the governor ordered a two-month statewide delay on imposing evictions for people who cannot pay rent due to Covid-19. The order prevents the enforcement of evictions until the end of May, but requires tenants to repay the full amount later. Some cities, like Oakland and LA, have adopted stronger protections.
But the accounts and records from tenants across the state indicate those regulations ultimately fail to provide relief for those who are most in need, and are not being properly enforced. In some cases, the confusing patchwork of local ordinances has allowed landlords to continue targeting tenants in a state that had a severe housing crisis before coronavirus.
Though the courts are not currently processing evictions, some landlords are still starting the process, or unlawfully attempting to remove tenants. It’s difficult to know how many tenants across the state are threatened with eviction, but advocates in LA, the Bay Area, and parts of the Central Valley say they have anecdotally heard of a handful of cases in which owners have launched evictions. They are hearing more frequently about tenants facing misinformation and misleading threats from landlords.
Tenants facing eviction: ‘I will be homeless and pregnant’
Krystal McMorris, 29, is pregnant and currently fighting to keep her apartment in Alameda, an island across the bay from San Francisco: “I don’t have any options. I have to stay here. I have to fight. If not, I will be homeless and pregnant. I already fear this stress is going to cause me to lose my baby.”
McMorris worked for six years for FPI Management, a real estate corporation, as an on-site property manager, a job which included her apartment. After the pandemic was declared last month, FPI terminated her position and told her she had 30 days to move out, despite the eviction moratorium and regional shelter-in-place orders. When McMorris asked the company to allow her to stay until the Covid-19 emergency had passed, telling her boss she was pregnant, the company responded that she “does not have rights” and that it could have forced her out in three days, but instead gave her until 17 April.
“If she fails to vacate by that deadline, we will take immediate legal action to regain possession of the unit as soon as legally possible,” Brandi Hutchinson, FPI senior director, wrote to McMorris’s attorney, adding that she would now owe $3,030 a month.
There’s no housing, no employment. Every day I’m afraid. It’s been dreadful, scary, stressful, frustrating.
Despite her fears of contracting Covid-19, McMorris went to multiple open houses around the Bay Area last weekend in hopes of finding a new apartment, exposing herself to strangers, but found nothing affordable or livable. “There’s no housing, no employment. Everyday I’m afraid. It’s been dreadful, scary, stressful, frustrating.”
McMorris, who lost her health insurance and has been unable to go to the doctor, said she wants to leave her apartment, but has nowhere to go. “People are dying left and right. I was just asking that they at least give me more time.”
FPI’s chief operating officer, Dave Divine, did not respond to specific questions about how the company plans to “regain possession” of her apartment, but said in an email that “FPI is compassionate to Ms McMorris’ situation” and has not forced her to pay rent . “FPI’s actions have been and shall remain consistent with all applicable laws.”
Gómez, the mother of six, has lived with her family for three years in the Courtyard Motel in Downey, an LA suburb. Although it’s a motel, she and other tenants live there full-time and, according to attorneys, are protected under anti-eviction laws, including the new Covid-19 regulations. But after the father of her children lost most of his income at a restaurant due to Covid-19, the family ran out of money to pay rent. She said she pleaded with the motel manager, saying she would pay everything she had as soon as possible.
Managers responded by calling the Downey police department to remove her, and officers showed up to her door, telling her she had to leave. Because she happened to be on the phone at the time with Monica Arellano, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of LA, the lawyer was able to talk to the officers and explain the law. Police eventually left, but the motel called the department again multiple times that day, requiring her to repeatedly explain her rights to new officers.
She still paid the minimal cash they could, $370, after getting a check, leaving her with little money for other basic necessities. She said the managers continue to threaten her. “Anytime I leave my room, I fear they are going to call the cops on my kids, and I’ll come back and they’ll be kicked out,” said Gómez, who has lupus, a long-term autoimmune disease that puts her at higher risk of Covid-19 complications. “I keep telling them whatever money we have we’ll give it to them.”
The Downey police department did not respond to inquiries. Reached by phone, Rushabh Bhakta, a representative with the motel, said his staff made a payment arrangement with Gómez after calling police.
Sonia Aguilar, 43, who is recovering from breast cancer, has faced threats from her LA landlord, who has said he wants her family out by the end of April. Earlier in the year, Aguilar, her husband and three children had planned to move, but once the pandemic hit, it became impossible and dangerous for her: “I have underlying health issues and I only go out for food and medicine. I’m not in any condition to rent a U-Haul. It’s scary.”
But the landlord, Ezequiel Navar, won’t stop calling them, she said: “The stress is making me more ill.”
Renters fight back: ‘You picked the wrong tenant’
Some tenants are fighting hard to assert their rights in the face of eviction threats.
“I knew it wasn’t an obligation to pay, and that it was better to keep that money for food and emergencies,” said Michelle Johnson, a 28-year-old LA resident recently furloughed from her job at a coffee company. After she told her property manager she couldn’t pay, the manager said she was required to submit three pay stubs, proof of unemployment and two bank statements, and then sign a payment plan. None of this is required by law. The manager then taped an eviction notice on her door, a “three-day notice” to pay or leave, the first step of an eviction lawsuit.
“It was not only an intimidation tactic for me, but it was also for other tenants to see,” said Johnson, whose apartment is near the front door of the building. “Unfortunately for y’all, you picked the wrong informed tenant. I know this is illegal.”
It was still emotional for Johnson, who experienced homelessness as a child. But she responded with an email reminding the manager of her rights, and then filed a complaint with the city. “The city isn’t doing enough to make sure landlords are doing their job.” (LA’s housing department did not respond to a request for comment.)
Shirin Bina, 36, said she “completely fell apart” and cried for days after receiving a similar three-day eviction notice on her door in Oakland. “It just seemed like she had absolutely no regard for me as a human being,” Bina said of her landlord, Debra Reese. “She broke the ‘shelter in place’ to put that on my door.”
Bina told Reese she couldn’t pay after losing a job as a bookkeeper and other work. She reminded her landlord of Oakland’s ordinance. Reese responded: “You failed to provide documentation and you failed to pay your rent; therefore this method will be utilized.”
Bina said she has struggled at times to understand her rights, adding, “If there’s such severe repercussions for a tenant not paying rent, there should be severe repercussions for a landlord abusing the law at this point.”
Reese did not respond to inquiries.
Chris Tyler’s landlord in LA asked that he sign an agreement saying he would immediately report his “stimulus payments, unemployment benefits, payments related to paid family leave, disability insurance payments and Covid-19 related loans” so the owner can ‘“accelerate amounts due”. Tyler, who works with the LA Tenants Union and lost his job at a bar, said he knew not to agree to the contract, but worries about others: “When you’re in a precarious situation, and you don’t know your rights, you obviously feel compelled to sign.”
The LA Tenants Union has urged people to withhold rent and has called for lawmakers to freeze rent and mortgage payments during the crisis. If the state passed a rent forgiveness law, it would ensure tenants avoid insurmountable debts. In the meantime, advocates said, cities should proactively enforce the protections in place and hold landlords accountable when they violate renters’ rights.
The tenants union is also assisting 70-year-old Pamela Fairbanks. She paid her rent, but her landlord, Steve Kaali, showed up at her door this week with an eviction notice, alleging she had too many cats. Fairbanks, who has lived in her apartment for 25 years, said she has long owned three cats. She said she has also been in quarantine for weeks while recovering from bacterial pneumonia: “I panicked. I was shaking. I could barely breathe through the tears.”
Reached by phone, Kaali said the cats were an ongoing issue because they go in and out of the apartment, and his eviction notice was meant to be a “scare tactic” to get her to install a window screen: “I’m not taking her to court knowing I’m not going to win.”
He added that he hadn’t tried to remove her from her rent-controlled apartment and bring in a higher-paying tenant: “I could’ve been a slumlord scumbag who kicks everyone out. I did not.”
The ones who move out: ‘Let’s just cut our losses’
Jonathan Cañez and Tamiaya Moore, roommates who live in Bakersfield in the Central Valley, both lost their longtime jobs at a local hotel due to Covid-19. When they told their landlord they couldn’t pay rent, the manager told them they would owe the full amount and should move out if they can’t afford it.
“We decided it’s better to just cut our losses,” said Cañez, 25, who is moving in with his brother. They didn’t know how they would ever be able to pay back the rent: “I’ve worked so hard to have this place to call my own, a safe space. To have that shift away from me has been very hard and humiliating.”
Moore, 26, is going to sleep on an air mattress at a friend’s house for now. She’s been applying to jobs at grocery stores, but is also afraid of working there due to her asthma and the reality that essential workers are dying on the job. “I’m emotional because I was just getting my life together. Now it’s going to be rough for awhile.”