In the nick of time, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature extended an eviction moratorium designed to keep California tenants who missed rent payments in their homes during the 15-month coronavirus pandemic.
But that safety net has gaping holes — and thousands of renters have fallen through, a new CalMatters analysis reveals.
From July 2020 through March 2021, sheriff's departments across the state enforced lockouts of at least 7,677 households, according to data obtained through public records requests from all but two of California's 58 counties.
The numbers show that residential evictions increased dramatically in the first three months of 2021 — 3,675, compared to 4,002 in the last six months of 2020. The analysis also shows a wide gap in eviction rates across the state — far higher in parts of the Central Valley and Inland Empire compared to the Bay Area and some smaller coastal counties. Los Angeles also experienced higher-than-average eviction rates.
The total number of evictions in the data could be as many as 9,150; 16 counties either failed to provide addresses, which CalMatters used to verify if the lockouts were residential, didn't confirm whether the eviction was carried to completion or provided incomplete data.
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Similar data from March 2020 until August showed the state carried out at least 2,000 evictions, bringing the total number of households locked out throughout the pandemic to nearly 10,000, at minimum. The numbers also don't include cases when tenants left their homes before a court got involved. Despite the limitations of the data, this analysis is the most comprehensive look yet at the pandemic's impact on housing stability in California.
"Perhaps one of the greatest disservices that politicians and their staff had made through this whole process is using the term 'moratorium' because we have pretty much never had a true moratorium in the state of California," said Katie McKeon, staff attorney at the Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles, which represents tenants.
At the same time, the state's effort to provide rent relief has been slow and cumbersome; as of June 30, only about 6,600 households have received $73 million since January, while roughly 94,000 tenants have sought more than $775 million.
California's eviction ban had been set to end, but Newsom and lawmakers agreed at the last minute to extend the protections through Sept. 30, in part to give more time to distribute $5.2 billion in federal rent relief to tenants and landlords alike.
Assemblymember David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who helped craft the eviction protections, called CalMatters' findings "disturbing."
Chiu, who leads the Assembly Housing Committee, has also been cautious about touting the protections as a blanket ban: "At best, it's a halt to one category of evictions, but there are many, many grounds for evictions that do not have protections," he said.
Repeated attempts to beef up those protections have faced vehement opposition by the powerful landlord lobby, which has argued that many tenants are abusing protections at the expense of struggling landlords.
Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the California Apartment Association, chalked up a majority of evictions to nuisances and disturbances to health and safety, which are still allowed even under the moratorium.
"Unfortunately there's a spin in the media that all tenants deserve to be protected, but unfortunately, we have all walks of life in apartments and in multifamily. And if you've ever lived there, sometimes you have a neighbor who just drives you nuts," Carlton said. "Most of these have to be pretty egregious for the court to order it."
Indeed, Carlton said she was surprised by how low the eviction numbers were, compared with the roughly 6 million rental units in California.
Central Valley hit hard
The statewide eviction data from July 2020 through March showed a clear divide across the state. On average, in the 40 counties for which CalMatters obtained complete data, about six of every 10,000 households were locked out.
The eviction rates jumped to 14 for every 10,000 households in Kern County, 11 in Kings County, 12 in Merced County and 18 in Stanislaus County.
Why the gap?
While there are no clear causes for the differences in eviction rates, CalMatters found consistent correlations with four factors: whether tenants had additional protections from a local moratorium; how much discretion a sheriff's office used in carrying out evictions; whether county courthouses closed during the pandemic; and whether a county had a local eviction defense network before the pandemic.
Central Valley counties rarely added additional reasons to ban an eviction on top of those laid out by the state, experts noted.
"At the county level, we were just seeing a whole lot of nothing," said Amber Crowell, an associate professor of sociology at Fresno State who has been studying and advocating for eviction protections in Fresno. Crowell, who also works with Faith in the Valley, said most cities and counties did a poor job of communicating to renters their rights and protections, even under the state law.
The most significant halt, Crowell said, came from the state's Judicial Council, which stopped eviction proceedings in courts between last April and September. After that, many courthouses stayed online, which delayed jury trials. That hiatus helps explain the jump in evictions from 2020 to 2021.
"If a landlord is actually doing a legal eviction, it does take some time," said McKeon, from the Public Counsel Law Center. "And it's taking a longer time because of the COVID restrictions and because of the backlog. So, frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of cases filed in September and October that didn't really work their way through the system until January or February."
The Fresno County Sheriff failed to provide data in response to multiple public records requests in time for this analysis. The city — which saw some of the biggest rent hikes in the country during the pandemic — added modest protections atop the state's.
Jovana Morales, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno, attributed the high rates of evictions to low representation of tenants in courts — the only real way to use the defenses laid out by the state protections.
She said most Central Valley counties have one, maybe two organizations providing legal aid, which have been stretched paper thin during the pandemic. "Everyone knows there is no one to help them," she said.
Brandi Snow, lead housing attorney for Central California Legal Services in Fresno, said her organization represents a minuscule fraction of eviction cases in the region, but was able to persuade lawyers for landlords to dismiss several cases. In one, she said, a woman received a three-day notice for a lease violation because her dog, which had lived there for years, was suddenly deemed "too big for the unit" — after she fell behind on rent.
"We have the ability to look at all the text messages. We can prove it's actually a retaliation. But what about the people who don't come to us?" she asked.
The data also misses a key segment of renters in the Valley: undocumented immigrants. Crowell says they are far more susceptible to evictions outside the courthouse since a threat to call immigration authorities can scare families into moving out. Language barriers also make it much easier for someone who only speaks Spanish to fall through the cracks, even if the law is on their side.
Beatriz Gontiz, 49, who lives in rural Merced County, said she was forced out of the ranch she and her family called home in April. She received an eviction notice from her landlord, in addition to what she describes as repeated harassment, and she feared losing in court without representation, so she packed her bags and left.
She now rents two rooms for $800 in a mobile home, which she likens to a sauna, and has lost the business she ran from the ranch selling poultry and eggs to local restaurants.
"Sometimes I ask myself, what would have happened if I had waited until court?" she lamented, in Spanish. "I lost everything."
Lower eviction rates in the Bay Area
By contrast, some counties in the Bay Area added significant safeguards for tenants beyond the state's and most had lower eviction rates.
Alameda County, which reported just 26 lockouts by the sheriff's office during the nine months, had much stronger eviction protections, especially for those who could prove that they lost income due to the pandemic.
"If you provide documentation that you have a COVID-related impact that made you unable to pay rent on time," an Aug. 20 Alameda County fact sheet explained, "the ordinance prohibits your eviction and there are no exceptions."
Even without documentation, there were only three exemptions for evictions: Landlords who were taking their rental properties off the market, buildings that were not up to code or an imminent safety concern such as black mold.
Other counties' moratoriums "have rarely been written with the simplicity and straightforwardness of the Alameda County [moratorium] where they've tried to be very, very targeted and require various forms of proof," said Alex Werth, policy manager at East Bay Housing Organizations, a tenant advocacy nonprofit.
The San Francisco sheriff carried out only five lockouts in the latter half of 2020. The sheriff issued guidance as recently as May 10 emphasizing that the office would postpone evictions that did not pose a health and safety risk or the potential for violence.
When Chiu crafted the original eviction moratorium last year, he envisioned statewide protections similar to the local ones in the Bay Area: "It was incredibly disappointing when we were not able to expand those protections and was yet another reflection of how hard it is to enact tenant protections in Sacramento," he said.
The California Apartment Association pushed to prevent local jurisdictions from enacting stronger protections atop the state ones. That push was successful in the latest round of eviction protections, at least in relation to nonpayment of rent. Cities can't make it any more difficult for a landlord to evict over missed rent, but they can shield tenants from evictions over other reasons, according to Chiu.
For example, Los Angeles County last week passed a moratorium extension that said an elderly tenant cannot be evicted unless the person moving into the home is also elderly. That protection will remain in place through at least Sept. 30.
Los Angeles accounted for 2,747 confirmed residential evictions from July 2020 and the end of March, more than one-third of the statewide total. Its eviction rate was also higher than the statewide average. Its main courthouse did not close for long during the pandemic, something eviction defense attorneys told CalMatters last year was unfairly prejudicial to their clients.
The slow rollout of rent relief could also be a factor: In Los Angeles County, 23,000 tenants asked for $273 million in aid, but only 2,900 have received about $33 million, according to a KQED analysis of state data.
Why were people evicted?
Each version of the statewide eviction protections focused on a single type of eviction: non-payment of rent. Tenants couldn't be evicted if they failed to pay rent, as long as they fulfilled certain conditions. Under the new extension, they must submit a declaration of hardship and pay a quarter of the rent owed before Sept. 30.
The data obtained by CalMatters doesn't specify the justifications for the 7,700 evictions, but several landlord and tenant advocacy groups explained a tenant could still be evicted throughout the pandemic for reasons unrelated to late payments:
-The landlord or their family was moving into the property, or selling the property to a person who intended to move in.
-A landlord had to demolish or do a substantial remodeling because the unit posed a health and safety threat.
-The tenant committed a crime or a criminal threat on the property.
-The tenant violated the lease by subletting the property, causing a nuisance or staying after the lease expired.
"There is this narrative out there that there is a moratorium," said Lorraine Lopez, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "But it still requires the tenant to assert these defenses in court. You're still fighting these things in court."
Lopez said her group saw a sharp increase in nuisance evictions over issues that had not been called out in the past, including storing things illegally in a parking spot or poor housekeeping.
Some of those, she said, were "landlords who are looking for other reasons to evict folks." Other complaints to landlords came from neighbors, unaccustomed to hearing kids stuck at home doing online schooling.
It's unclear how the number of evictions compare to a normal year, before the pandemic. Sheriff's offices collect lockout data at the local level, but formats vary and statewide numbers are not available. Court data is notoriously hard to collect and analyze. Estimates using 2016 court data range from roughly 41,000 to 166,000 evictions that year, with an extensive list of caveats.
"There have been several legislative attempts to understand what is actually happening around evictions in California," Chiu said, referring to Assemblymember Buffy Wicks' attempts to create a rental registry, which failed for a third time this year amid opposition from the California Association of Realtors. "Those have not gotten far."
Aidan McGloin, Alejandra Salgado, Hannah Getahun, Julianna Domingo, Maddie Beck, Ryan Loyola and Shehreen Karim of CalMatters' College Journalism Network contributed in building the database from which our eviction analysis was conducted.