Landlords are going to court in big numbers to try to remove tenants since Alameda County lifted its eviction moratorium, with 243 lawsuits filed so far in May compared to 65 in all of April.
The immediate increase could foreshadow what to expect when Oakland’s moratorium expires on July 15 and Berkeley’s on Aug. 31.
Alameda County Superior Court data obtained by The Oaklandside shows that before the COVID-19 crisis, property owners typically filed 300 to 400 eviction lawsuits per month across the entire county. When the county and several cities adopted eviction moratoriums in March 2020, the cases initially plummeted to zero.
Several months later, lawsuits began to creep up, but never reached higher than 85 filings in one month. The moratoriums allowed evictions only in cases of safety threats or if an owner wanted to remove their building from the rental market.
Alameda County’s eviction ban expired April 29. The 243 eviction lawsuits filed in the first 19 days of May are roughly quadruple the 65 filed in April, and the 57 in March.
“Seeing numbers this high without even counting Oakland is really scary for what’s going to happen come the end of July and early August,” said Monique Berlanga, executive director of Centro Legal de la Raza, which contracts with Alameda County and cities to provide legal services to tenants.
Berlanga said the increase in May is “staggering” because the majority of the cases Centro handles are typically in Oakland and Berkeley, which aren’t yet represented in the data. Berkeley is also still phasing out its moratorium.
A lawsuit is not the first step in an eviction attempt. When a landlord wants to remove a tenant from rental housing, usually for non-payment of rent or some other alleged lease violation, they must start by giving a three-day notice to the renter. Often tenants will move out without the landlord having to go to court, so these numbers may not capture the extent of the evictions that have occurred in May.
If the tenant doesn’t move out, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit, or “unlawful detainer.” The lawsuit may or may not result in an eviction.
As COVID-19 cases began to spread in early 2020 and cities went into lockdown, local governments adopted eviction moratoriums to try to keep people in their homes and away from the deadly virus. Unemployment had risen at an unprecedented rate, and many households were struggling to afford rent as income dried up. The moratoriums were designed to prevent a spike in homelessness by temporarily prohibiting landlords from kicking out tenants who missed payments.
The court data indicates that the policies worked as intended, for the most part: Since the moratoriums were put in place, the county has seen only a small fraction of the eviction cases that were typical in 2019.
But as the pandemic dragged on, the moratoriums — and when to end them — became a matter of impassioned debate. Landlords disrupted city government meetings, demanding an end to the policies that they said had cost them thousands of dollars in rent from tenants who could refuse to pay without consequence.
Derek Barnes, the CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, one of the groups that organized rallies against the moratorium, said significant unpaid rent accumulated while the ban was in place. He said his organization spent months pushing local governments to provide better financial assistance.
“There may be a surge of eviction filings given the eviction prohibition over several years,” Barnes said in an email. “Ultimately, it is up to councilmembers and city staff to find more [rental assistance] funding and develop programs to prevent the displacement of renters and their distressed property owners who can no longer subsidize non-paying residents.”
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, tenants warned officials that ending the moratoriums without carefully phasing them out or protecting renters from abuse would harm the many households still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic. Advocates have repeatedly raised concerns about an incoming “tsunami” of evictions as soon as the bans expire.
In addition to Oakland and Berkeley, San Leandro still has its own moratorium in place. But in the rest of Alameda County, landlords are now free to take tenants to court to evict them.
Anticipating an influx of evictions after the Oakland moratorium ends this summer, the City Council recently passed new, permanent tenant protections to make it harder to remove a renter. Landlords are now prohibited from evicting anyone who owes less than one month of what the federal government considers fair rent. In November, voters also expanded the city’s “just cause” law placing additional restrictions on evictions.
Oakland tracks eviction notices issued in the city, the precursor to a lawsuit, and that data similarly shows a steep drop after it instituted its moratorium. Before the pandemic, it was normal to see as many as 500 eviction notices a month. This dropped to under 100 starting in April 2020.
This month, the Berkeley City Council approved an additional $200,000 in funds for the Eviction Defense Center, which has been in charge of disbursing funds for people who apply for rent support in the city. Residents can apply for this rent support through the city’s Housing Retention Fund.
One prominent Bay Area landlord attorney, Daniel Bornstein, sent an email to his clients in early May, advising them against springing into action as soon as the bans fall away.
“As eviction moratoriums wind down throughout Alameda County, please don’t get a false sense of bravado,” he wrote. “Housing providers need to be careful and methodical when endeavoring to recover possession of the premises.”