With a decision made today by Oakland City Council, Berkeley and Oakland now have two of the strongest emergency protections for residential renters and small businesses in California. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

At a special meeting convened over Zoom today, Oakland’s City Council adopted a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions. That means tenants who currently can’t pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be kicked out of their homes, and some local businesses are also protected from eviction. Tenant advocates say Oakland’s measure is possibly the strongest emergency protection for renters in California.

“The most important thing we can do as a city, to keep people safe in their homes during the epidemic, is to make sure tenants can stay in their homes,” said Oakland City Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, the lead author of the ordinance.

Despite the fact that courts have shut down across the state, some renters are still receiving eviction notices — which is why Oakland’s moratorium offers much-needed emergency protection, said Anne Omura, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, which represents low-income renters in the Bay Area.

Omura shared the story of a family with four children that her organization has worked with in the past couple of weeks. Omura said the family members are immigrants with limited English-language skills, and are reluctant to speak directly with reporters. They’ve lived in the same Oakland apartment building for nine years, but the building was recently foreclosed on and the new landlord is seeking to remove residents. On Wednesday night, Omura said, the family was served at home with a lawsuit that was filed just before the courthouse closed.

“The dad is now out of work because of COVID-19,” said Omura. “They have little or no money to survive on.”

Under Oakland’s new moratorium, all residential evictions are prohibited until May 31, a date that could be extended by the City Council if the pandemic worsens.

For now, landlords also aren’t allowed to increase rent by more than 3.5%. Landlords can’t charge late fees if a tenant is too sick to pay rent, or is late in paying because they were complying with local emergency measures. Renters can’t be fined late fees if they lost income because of the pandemic, either.

Small businesses with commercial leases are also protected by the city’s moratorium if they can’t make rent thanks to the pandemic.

“It’s stronger than every other jurisdiction,” Leah Simon-Weisberg, a tenant attorney with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, said about Oakland’s moratorium. “It’s covering all evictions.”

Landlord and business groups, including the Jobs and Housing Coalition and Oakland Chamber of Commerce, mostly expressed support for Oakland’s moratorium.

“It is in this spirit of people coming together that the Jobs and Housing Coalition applauds the effort of the City Council to protect our vulnerable residents and small businesses from the harsh suffering that the Coronavirus unleashes on our community,” Gregory McConnell, CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, wrote in a letter sent to council members yesterday.

Oakland Yard on 40th Street in Temescal.
Oakland Yard in Temescal (shown here before coronavirus forced many restaurants to close): Small businesses with commercial leases are protected by a new Oakland moratorium if they can’t make rent thanks to the pandemic. Photo: Sarah Han

Still, some property owners are concerned about some of the moratorium’s impacts.

In suggested revisions to the legislation, McConnell’s group recommended deleting a provision that would have converted unpaid rents during the local emergency into consumer debt. Unpaid rent from previous months could serve as a cause for eviction, whereas consumer debt cannot. The proposed text would have disallowed landlords from evicting tenants for unpaid rent after the emergency moratorium is lifted. Instead, landlords would have to pursue this debt in small claims court.

But even with the deleted provision, Oakland tenants still cannot face eviction later in the year for rents that went unpaid during the local emergency.

Berkeley will also let renters create a repayment plan

Ten days ago, Berkeley passed a similar moratorium preventing residential renters and small businesses from being evicted if they failed to pay rent due to a substantial loss in income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Berkeley’s ordinance, like Oakland’s, will allow renters and landlords to create a repayment plan for any missed rents during the local state of emergency.

Landlords and tenants agree, however, that local moratoriums aren’t enough on their own to prevent displacement, or to lessen the impact of the pandemic on property owners. Even with repayment plans, many renters and commercial tenants will not be able to hold onto their homes and shops if the economy falls into a lengthy recession. And commercial and residential tenants are not relieved from incurring debt if they fail to pay rent during the local emergency.

“It’s just kicking the can down the road in a lot of ways,” said Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, a landlord group that supported Berkeley’s moratorium. 

“It’s just kicking the can down the road in a lot of ways.” — Krista Gulbransen, Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition

“Everybody is impacted, and this will have a domino effect,” Gulbransen said. “If the renter can’t pay because of COVID-19, the owner doesn’t get paid income to maintain their property, including paying taxes, utilities, and mortgage.”

Partly to prevent that “domino effect,” Berkeley established a $3 million fund to help renters, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and arts nonprofits pay rent by providing a number of grants. Community and business leaders and local residents have contributed another $573,000 to The Berkeley Relief Fund which hopes to raise as much as $6 million.

“We’ll be launching the application process on Monday,” said Arreguín, and added that the city will be working with the East Bay Community Law Center on rental assistance.

Oakland has an existing program, Keep Oakland Housed, made up of nonprofits that assist renters facing displacement. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who supports the new eviction moratorium, launched a COVID-19 Relief Fund on March 20 with $2 million in private contributions, some of which will go to Keep Oakland Housed. So far, Oakland hasn’t set aside public funds for such a program.

Arreguín said Berkeley and Oakland’s efforts will help prevent displacement, but that much more needs to be done.

“While Berkeley’s ordinance deals with people directly impacted by COVID-19, we’re hoping the state and feds will take broader action, including doing what Berkeley and Oakland are doing by providing direct assistance as well.”

On March 16, Newsom issued an executive order authorizing local governments to halt evictions, slow foreclosures, and halt utility shutoffs. Today, at about the same time the Oakland City Council was voting on its local renter protections, Newsom issued a “statewide moratorium on evictions” across the state through an executive order. Newsom’s order, however, does not provide renters with any legal defense against residential evictions. Instead, it extends the deadline tenants normally have to respond to an eviction lawsuit from five days to 60 days, if the tenant can prove they failed to pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is not an eviction moratorium,” said tenant attorney Simon-Weisberg.

Omura of the Eviction Defense Center said the state’s approach so far has led to confusion and a patchwork of local responses that leave many renters across the state vulnerable.

So far, at least 65 cities and counties have implemented some type of eviction moratorium, according to the California Apartment Association.

Both Oakland and Berkeley’s city councils have urged state and federal lawmakers to provide financial assistance for renters and property owners.

“It’s still not too late for the Governor or lawmakers in Sacramento to do something that will cover all of California,” said Oakland Councilmember Bas. “My hope is it will be something strong. Oakland’s legislation is a good example.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated incorrectly that the Oakland ordinance included a four-to-12-month rent repayment plan. The ordinance did not include this provision.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and...