For tenants who lost jobs due to COVID-19, May 1 looms as the deadline to pay what’s now even harder in California: the monthly rent.
Some barely cobbled together their April payment. And while cities from Sacramento to Los Angeles are giving renters more time to pay, advocates say no one’s getting a free pass.
“There is no state, local or federal rule that waives the payment of rent,” said Brian Augusta, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which helps low-income residents.
His advice to clients has been that, “if you can pay the rent, you should because that’s the best way to protect yourself.”
Currently, renters in the city of Sacramento have up to four months after the end of the state’s emergency declaration to pay deferred rent. The emergency is set to end on May 31. In Los Angeles, tenants have 12 months after the city’s local emergency is lifted to pay rent debt.
Tenants who can’t afford their May rent because of a lost job or reduced hours should inform their landlords in writing. But they need to do that before the payment is due, said Sarah Steinmeiner, an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California.
“It could give them a defense in an eviction lawsuit,” she said.
Earlier this month, California’s courts suspended evictions until 90 days after the coronavirus emergency is lifted. The ruling, however, allows landlords to start the process, and some have sent eviction warning notices to tenants.
Steinheimer says renters should keep all documents proving that COVID-19 is the reason they lost income. Examples include a letter from an employer laying them off or reducing hours or a document that shows you had to stay home to care for a child due to the school closures.
Some tenants in California and beyond are considering a rent strike next month, even some who can afford to pay. The idea is to persuade governments to cancel rent during the time of crisis and widespread unemployment.
Sacramento renter Ryan Sharp lost his income as a substitute teacher when schools closed in March. The 25-year-old said he can afford his May rent but worries about others and would like to see rents forgiven.
“I think it’s going to be a time filled with uncertainty and fear,” he said of the May 1 deadline. “And there’s already so much uncertainty with the pandemic.”
Some lawmakers have proposed legislation to ease the burden. Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, introduced AB 828 which would allow courts to set up repayment plans.
“With court approval, a tenant could potentially have their rent temporarily reduced, while paying 10% of the back rent until the back rent paid off,” Nannette Miranda, a spokesperson for Ting wrote in an email, explaining the bill. “The court would also have to take into account a landlord's financial situation.”
The California Apartment Association, which represents thousands of landlords, has asked property owners to be flexible and work with renters on repayment plans.
The influential industry group is sponsoring SB 1410. Under that bill by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, the state “would make direct rental payments to help tenants who cannot afford to pay their rent. SB 1410 would cover at least 80% of unpaid rent attributable to the pandemic,” according to a description on the CAA website.
Asked about a rent strike, CAA spokesperson Debra Carlton said the idea should be rejected.
“It is not responsible,” Carlton said. “And it’s going to hurt everybody in the long run, especially if owners can’t keep employees on site. If tenants have the ability to be paying rent, they must be paying rent.”
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