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Tenants advocate for more time prior to evictions

Attempt to forestall a calamity

Special from Western Center on Law and Poverty | 8/14/2020, midnight
With another rent day come and gone and government stimulus checks..

With another rent day come and gone and government stimulus checks drained, four individuals and three renters’ rights groups – Faith in the Valley, Organize Sacramento, and Tenants Together – have filed a motion to intervene in Christensen et. al. v. Judicial Council of California, which challenges California’s freeze on evictions during the pandemic. The interveners are represented by Disability Rights California, Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, and Western Center on Law & Poverty.

The suit against the Judicial Council disputes the council’s emergency rule keeping tenants from eviction, which was implemented in response to the COVID-19 emergency. 

“I have tried to work with my landlord to pay some of my rent, but the property management company is posting letters every week saying I owe more,” says Jeremy Miller, an intervener and renter who lost work to the pandemic. Miller is worried that he and his 9-year-old daughter will become homeless. “I haven’t slept well in months.”  

Renters in California are struggling to pay rent due to job loss, reduction in work hours, or lack of childcare necessary to work. The Judicial Council’s Emergency Rule 1 essentially freezes the eviction process during the state of emergency. The interveners in the lawsuit seek to defend the state’s right to take extraordinary measures to prevent catastrophe until the legislature and governor enact comprehensive relief for both renters and small landlords.  

“I’m nervous about having to move during this pandemic with a newborn baby,” says Claudia Rodriguez, a school custodian and intervener. “My daughter and I have asthma. If I have to go to court in September after my notice expires and my baby arrives, I would be so scared and horrified.”

Rodriguez has managed to pay rent during the pandemic, even with reduced work hours. But her landlord gave notice trying to evict her to make repairs, and Rodriguez has been unable to find another place to rent.

Landlords across the country are filing lawsuits against state and local governments that passed renter protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 15, two landlords filed Christensen et. al. v. Judicial Council of California in Kern County, arguing that the Council’s suspension of certain procedural steps is unlawful. The lawsuit came during a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and at a time when California has no statewide legislative or executive protections to prevent a swell of evictions.  

“This is the worst time to lift any protections for renters, since homes are necessary to shelter in place,” says Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together. “We are seeing a rise in business closures and unemployment filings. Many Californians can’t pay rent; without protection, they will lose their housing. The Judicial Council rule gives the legislature and governor time to develop a solution that protects both renters and small landlords.”  

California already had an affordable housing shortage before the pandemic; many tenants were spending half or more of their income on rent, one unexpected life event away from significant devastation. Now we are all experiencing an unexpected life event, and we have the collective obligation to keep Californians housed.  

“California leaders talk about creating more equity and addressing the housing crisis, but this is where the rubber meets the road,” says Madeline Howard, an attorney for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Righting decades of wrong is hard enough—the added challenge of a pandemic and recession necessitates proactive, courageous leadership. The Judicial Council displayed that with its emergency eviction rule; we’re fighting to ensure those actions are encouraged and supported.” 

Dr. Janine Nkosi of Faith in the Valley says she is concerned that a wave of mass evictions will cause devastating ripple effects for generations of Californians.

“School is about to begin, and school leaders and teachers are trying to navigate distance learning. Once again, homes will be classrooms for California children and families. If our community members lose their homes, our children lose their education, and California threatens its own future.”  

In addition to facilitating healthy education environments, stable housing and addresses are important for the 2020 Census, and for the integrity of the upcoming election. Federal funding facilitated by the census will be more important than ever in the midst of severe economic downturn, and as more voters turn to mail-in ballots to say safe during the upcoming election, it is imperative that Californians have a reliable address.  

“Mass eviction is not just a single issue, and it is not just something that will affect communities in isolation,” said Navneet Grewal, an attorney for Disability Rights California. “Stable housing is foundational for healthy people, healthy communities, a healthy electorate, and ultimately, a healthy state.” 

Courts in California are not equipped to handle the wave of evictions that will come if there is no action from the courts, the governor, and the legislature. Even if courts conduct eviction hearings remotely, most vulnerable tenants do not have access to the internet, computers, or understand the legal process.  

Many tenants with low incomes who are facing eviction are essential workers who risk their lives and health to provide our state necessary services. We cannot afford to leave our people and communities defenseless.