apartment buildings, blue sky
Evictions are prohibited for the duration of Berkeley’s state of emergency, except for immediate health and safety issues. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Evictions are prohibited for the duration of Berkeley’s state of emergency, except for immediate health and safety issues. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to outlaw all evictions until the local state of emergency is lifted, and to give some tenants up to a year to pay back rent they missed during the pandemic.

The “urgency ordinance,” which goes into effect immediately, expands Berkeley’s existing eviction moratorium to align it with an Alameda County policy.

Berkeley’s March moratorium only stopped evictions for tenants who’d lost income because of the crisis, and gave them six months, not 12, to make up for missed payments.

“This is at heart an issue of public health,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison, who introduced the item with co-sponsors Ben Bartlett and Cheryl Davila. “The best tool we have is people staying home.”

The updated eviction moratorium lasts until the end of Berkeley’s indefinite state of emergency, with exceptions only for imminent health and safety risks. After the state of emergency ends, tenants have a year to pay back their rent if they can demonstrate that they experienced a loss of household income. Those tenants, who are encouraged to enter into repayment plans with their landlords, can never be evicted over the rent missed during the pandemic, but landlords can take them to small claims court over their debt after the year is up.

Other tenants who did not lose income during the crisis must pay their back-rent immediately after the pandemic, or they can be served an eviction notice right after the state of emergency is lifted.

“Basically we’re saying we aren’t going to evict people during this state of emergency,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “I think that’s a good policy. If more people are on the streets, there’s a greater risk of them catching or spreading COVID-19.”

Although the similar Alameda County ordinance is intended to apply to all cities, City Attorney Farimah Brown told Berkeleyside “we believe it is necessary to adopt a local ordinance if the council wishes to ensure comparable protections for Berkeley tenants.”

Some officials said they were worried the new policy could put smaller landlords in a tough spot.

“I have a lot of constituents who are older and really quite dependent on the rent,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf. “This is a class of people who are just like you and me, frankly,” she told Harrison. “They’re not monsters. It seems a little punitive and we’re giving the benefit to the tenants.”

So far, the vast majority of Berkeley tenants are still paying their rent, however, according to calculations by the Berkeley Property Owners Association. That organization’s director, Krista Gulbransen, told Berkeleyside that in both April and May, 90-95% of tenants in her members’ 2,000-some rent-controlled units paid rent on time. Some of those tenants may have received grants from Berkeley’s $1 million housing retention fund, which the city disperses directly to landlords on behalf of tenants who apply.

But Gulbransen was the sole speaker against the urgency ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting. She said BPOA had initially supported the eviction moratorium, reaching out to the mayor immediately in March to collaborate. But the organization stopped supporting the policy when Harrison proposed the open-ended tenure and the year-long repayment period, she said. (Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani suggested choosing a specific date to lift and revisit the moratorium, instead of ending it after the state of emergency, but that idea didn’t gain traction.)

Gulbransen suggested the city provide grants for property owners who’ve lost rental income, like it does for tenants.

Some officials smiled as they unanimously passed the expanded eviction moratorium Tuesday. Image: Zoom

Lawyers for the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, BPOA’s lobbying arm, took the criticism a step further in a letter to the city last week that called the updated rules “unconstitutional takings of private property.” They alleged that Harrison’s item violates a Gov. Gavin Newsom executive order, and said it could lead to an uptick in evictions by encouraging tenants not to save for rent repayment.

Lawyers for the city Tuesday said they were confident the new policy is legally sound, and that the state order does not prohibit Berkeley from expanding its ordinance.

“The city certainly has the legal authority to do this,” said Brown at the meeting. “This is not any sort of permanent, drastic deprivation of landlords’ rights.”

Some officials said they were interested in increasing city support for small property owners, but did not want that effort to stand in the way of immediate protections for tenants.

Arreguín said the council should consider landlord grants when the Housing Retention Program comes back to officials for review mid-June.

Several speakers told the council that Harrison’s item would help tenants immensely. A housing lawyer said her disabled, older client got threatened with eviction for having a visitor who was not wearing a mask. A man who’s rented in Berkeley for a decade said he’s lost all his income and is scared of getting kicked out. He urged the council to go even further, banning all rent increases or supporting tenants who will struggle to make up for missed rent along with paying the new rent that will accrue after the moratorium is lifted.

As an urgency ordinance, the item needed seven out of nine votes to pass. Despite some officials’ reservations, it received unanimous approval, earning applause from Councilmember Rigel Robinson and snaps of support from Davila.

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,...