A South Berkeley home bears a slogan of the Bay Area rent strike movement, one response to the new economic reality. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Juliana Kramer’s income typically covers two Berkeley rentals: her cottage apartment and the acupuncture office she shares with other practitioners.

She paid for neither in April.

As the coronavirus pandemic began disrupting daily life, some of the UC Berkeley students whom Kramer treats left town and canceled appointments. Kramer, who’d begun implementing sanitation measures in her office in March, ultimately decided she needed to close the clinic for safety reasons.  Without that income, she’s since been confined to the apartment she’d finally saved up to rent in 2019 after spending her first years in Berkeley at a communal home she co-founded. She has a dwindling prudent reserve for emergencies, but with student loan obligations and no sign that she could return to work imminently, Kramer saw no way she could continue paying for both rent and groceries.

“My thinking was I need to preserve whatever money I had. As a health care practitioner I knew this [shutdown] would not be three weeks,” said Kramer, an acupuncturist and herbalist who said she’s treating some COVID-19 patients virtually.

She has certainly tried to pay her rent. Kramer has spent hours upon hours filling out applications and making phone calls for renter and worker relief — the city’s expanded Housing Retention Program and its small business fund, the federal Paycheck Protection Program and a Small Business Administration grant, unemployment. She knows her landlord has property taxes to pay and doesn’t want to put her in a tough spot. But so far nothing’s panned out. Lisa Warhuus, who runs Berkeley’s Health, Housing & Community Services Department, said the city’s received hundreds of inquiries about its housing fund and plans to hand out about 300 grants of $5,000 each on May 15.

Nearly a third of all U.S. renters didn’t send in their checks for April 1, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. The number was smaller in Berkeley — somewhere around 10%, estimated a local landlord association — but with unemployment rates spiking, savings dwindling and tenants organizing, May 1 is expected to bring landlords many more empty mailboxes.

“Back in the end of March some people still had jobs,” said Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association and the manager of Kramer’s apartment. “We anticipate that May could be a lot worse. More people got laid off because of shelter-in-place extending.”

Berkeley, Alameda County pass eviction moratoriums

Even though Kramer has missed her rent payments, she won’t be evicted, at least for now. There are emergency protections in place for the legions like her who are missing payments.

Juliana Kramer, an acupuncturist and herbalist pictured here at her apartment, has lost almost all her income during the crisis. She’s among legions of renters missing monthly payments. Photo: Courtesy Juliana Kramer

It’s a dizzying exercise to try to keep track of all the local, state and now regional emergency legislation passed to prevent evictions during the pandemic. Berkeley’s March eviction moratorium — which itself had to be reworked when the state’s second anti-eviction order came down shortly before a City Council meeting — says landlords can’t evict any households that can demonstrate loss of income due to the COVID-19 crisis for the duration of the pandemic. Tenants get six months after the local state of emergency expires to pay off that back rent.

However a new eviction moratorium passed this month by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors goes further, banning evictions during the pandemic for any reason other than a non-COVID-19 health or safety issue. Tenants who keep their jobs but miss rent payments can’t be handed eviction notices until 90 days after the moratorium was passed or when the shelter-in-place order expires. That order gives tenants a full year to pay off their debt.

Initially, the county was going to allow cities to opt out of provisions of the moratorium, but supervisors decided cities would have to comply or have even stronger tenant protections. Typically the county doesn’t even have the authority to legislate for municipalities, but the state of emergency changes the rules, according to officials. Berkeley City Councilwoman Kate Harrison said she’ll propose legislation at the end of May to strengthen Berkeley’s moratorium to look like the county’s.

The moratoriums say landlords can eventually take tenants to court over their unpaid debt, but they can never evict them for payments missed during the crisis.

Buying tenants some more time, the Judicial Council of California has also closed all eviction courts until 90 days after the California state of emergency declaration is lifted.

Right after the city’s moratorium was passed, the Berkeley Rent Board sent all renters mailers about their new rights and what they still can’t do.

Jay Kelekian, who served as the executive director until he went out on paid administrative leave on Tuesday, said he has strong advice for tenants: Tell your landlords as soon as you know you can’t make some or all of your rent.

“It could be as simple as an email to the landlord, but keep documentation,” he said. A landlord can still seek damages for unpaid rent after the fact, because “in no way is the city forgiving debt,” he said. But “what you can’t do is sign something saying, ‘I owe you $1,000 for three months during the crisis and if I don’t pay it after, you can evict me.'” The Rent Board website does have a template contract for landlords and tenants who agree on a temporary rent reduction, though. Landlords can also apply for an eviction moratorium waiver if they demonstrate financial hardship, though Kelekian and Gulbransen said they believe nobody has yet.

“My hope is that owners and tenants are able to abide by the intent of the moratorium,” Kelekian said. “I hope tenants, to the extent they’re able to, make efforts to pay back rent. I hope that owners realize that tenants can’t be evicted or harassed. They have a legal remedy.”

Calls to ‘cancel rent’ inspire tenants, anger landlords

Some tenants are trying to organize a Bay Area-wide rent strike to get full cancelation of rent during the crisis. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Kramer said she’s relying on her Eastern medicine training, and bike rides around Berkeley, to cope with the serious uncertainty.

“At this point, I’m taking a spiritual approach. I try to meditate, pause, breathe — just think about the fact that I’m going to be okay, and send out prayers and love,” she said.

Gulbransen said she told the landlords who are members of the Berkeley Property Owners Association  to “be compassionate, work something out if the tenant has been impacted.” She has been in close contact with Kramer and understands why she’s lagging on rent. But many other landlords are reaching out and getting radio silence — and no rent — in return, she said.

Some property owners say the new system lets anyone skip rent for months — and barely keeps them on the hook for the back rent since eviction courts will stay closed across the state for quite some time.

“We anticipate a good handful of people not paying rent for a long time, and the owner won’t have anything to do about it,” Gulbransen said. “I really don’t think many owners, even big owners, could withstand 15-18 months to find out whether” they’ll get any rent, she said. “We’re talking about maybe 15 months from now I might be able to get into the court and evict someone. Even then, you’re going to have to spend a bunch of money to go to court.”

But many tenants, who’ve long been impacted by a housing crisis that predates the coronavirus crisis, see a need to demand immediate change and an opportunity to reshape the system in the long run. Many were paying half their income on rent already, and don’t see how they can resume that practice once again next year, after missing months of work. Others who are still employed are talking about organizing rent strikes to win permanent relief for their less fortunate neighbors during the crisis.

The national “cancel rent” movement asks for a “suspension on rent, mortgage and utility payments.”

“Millions of us don’t know how we are going to pay our rent, mortgage, or utilities on April 1st, yet landlords and banks are expecting payment as if it’s business as usual. It’s not,” said the movement website.

In a Bay Area-specific Facebook group, around 2,500 renters are agitating for a regional rent strike. Tenants are using the group to connect with other renters who share their corporate owner, uploading screenshots from Zoom organizing sessions, and sharing legal resources with people posting text messages from landlords demanding rent and personal information.

Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, TANC, is one regional group demanding a full elimination of rent during the crisis. The group views the uncertainty renters are feeling as a symptom of the same system that’s allowed rents to grow at a much faster clip than wages for years.

“The fact that anybody has to fear being evicted because of their inability to pay rent during a global health pandemic demonstrates the utter wickedness of this system,” TANC says on its website. “During this crisis, rent must be completely forgiven; there should be no expectation to pay it now, or ‘back pay’ it in the future. Nobody should profit from this crisis.”

Gulbransen said landlords rely on those monthly rent payments.

The activists are “seeing this opportunity — they’re trying to make a statement against capitalism,” she said. “They’re doing this whole campaign on ‘cancel rent, cancel mortgage’ — that’s all fine and dandy, but your rent doesn’t just pay my mortgage. It pays property tax, it pays repairs.”

Gulbransen said there are no legal challenges planned for the eviction moratoriums at this point, but that if cities try to pass laws “canceling rent,” landlord groups will certainly put up a fight.

One large East Bay landlord had harsher words about rent strikes: “It’s totally unconstitutional and completely un-American. It’s a complete government taking,” said Sam Sorokin, whose Premium Properties has several hundred residential and commercial units in Berkeley and Oakland.

“In the short run, I see no problem with the eviction moratorium. We as a society need to be compassionate,” he said. “This is not the time to evict tenants. The question is, at some point in time the public needs to reimburse the owners. When an owner doesn’t collect a rent check that owner is the one subsidizing that tenant. That is their income, that is their job, so why is the tenant’s bills more important than the owner’s bills? At some point in time, there has to be a line in sand — a virus is dramatically changing all of our lives and that’s awful. They may need to move somewhere else. There are other, cheaper places to go.” 

Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg said society will face a big question about what to do with all the debt renters will accrue and the money landlords are losing after the pandemic.

“We need to assure that bailouts are equitable,” she said, meaning a nuanced look at who’s been most affected. While Sorokin said all owners need to get paid back, Simon-Weisberg said that for big real estate players, “their investment was speculative, and they might have to sell. That’s part of the capitalist game.”

Premium Properties has worked out a rent reduction program with its tenants during the crisis. Premium’s Sam Sorokin says owners will need to be reimbursed for all the missed payments eventually. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

For now, Premium Properties has worked out a rent reduction system, lowering all rents by 5% for May. If a tenant pays the full amount, Premium will match a quarter of their 5% to give to those struggling to make the full rent. Sorokin said 15 people have “donated” their 5%, though he acknowledged that the rent reduction offer is likely to generate goodwill that may ward off more significant rent withholding.

To Sorokin, eviction moratoriums are “unnecessary,” because a landlord would be a “fool” to kick out tenants for missing a month or two of rent when there isn’t exactly a glut of people looking to replace them. He expects rents are about to drop somewhat too.

Tell that to Berkeley resident Jesse Meria, a single father of two who’s been paying rent but unexpectedly got a text from his landlord saying his lease would not be renewed this spring.

Meria, a freelance photographer whose work has dried up, was “in shock.” He called up the owner of his four-unit building. Meria said he was told several different conflicting reasons for the non-renewal, including something about the rent price and that the landlord wanted to move into the unit — either on her own or with Meria’s family.

Confused, Meria immediately called renter organizations and posted about his situation online. He was told that the owner would at least need to provide him with written notice and pay relocation assistance, so he’s calmed down a bit, especially since he hasn’t heard back from her. But he’s started looking for new housing just in case, doing apartment drive-bys and wading through Craigslist ads offering virtual room tours.

There’s one benefit of looking for housing right now, he said: Meria, like the millions in the U.S. who’ve lost work, has plenty of time on his hands.

Ed. note: This story was updated to clarify the reason Juliana Kramer closed her acupuncture clinic. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...