In a victory for those struggling to stay in their homes, California's courts suspended eviction and foreclosure proceedings statewide on Monday until 90 days after the coronavirus state of emergency is lifted.
Tenant advocates and some lawmakers praised the decision by the Judicial Council, noting it goes further than last month’s executive orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Still, they said, it does not eliminate a landlord’s ability to start an eviction.
Newsom’s orders called for a moratorium on evictions but allowed court proceedings to continue and only delayed physical removal until after May. Tenants also must notify their landlord in writing within a week of missing the payment.
“Today, the courts took a very major step forward in clearing up a lot of confusion that has existed around what is happening to tenants during this time period,” said Asm. David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Housing Committee.
The move halts all court summons, judgements and lock out orders.
Chiu said the decision means people who have lost income due to the COVID-19 crisis won’t have to risk their health by having to show up in court right away.
It also gives renters and homeowners facing eviction more time to obtain unemployment and other benefits to stabilize their finances.
Anya Lawler, a housing policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, described it on Twitter as “Huge relief for tenants and homeowners struggling to pay bills right now. Amazing leadership from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and council members.”
Cantil-Sakauye — chief justice of the state Supreme Court — heads the Judicial Council, which is the policy making body of the California courts.
The council announced a total of 11 temporary emergency rules following its meeting today.
They include setting bail statewide at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to “safely reduce jail populations,” and allowing courts to require judicial proceedings and court operations to be conducted remotely, with the defendant’s consent in criminal proceedings.
Monday’s meeting was the second emergency council meeting to consider ways courts can meet strict health directives while also providing due process and access to justice. The courts remain open as "essential services" under Newsom's stay-home executive order.
“We are at this point truly with no guidance in history, law, or precedent,” Cantil-Sakauye said in a press release. “And to say that there is no playbook is a gross understatement of the situation.
The court’s halt on evictions and foreclosures followed a growing call by tenant groups and lawmakers for Newsom to take stronger action. Some renters in California have even discussed the possibility of rent strikes.
Sarah Steinheimer, attorney at Legal Service of Northern California, a legal aid agency, said last week she was worried people wouldn’t take the steps necessary to prevent an eviction “because they thought they didn’t need to do anything” during the moratorium announced by the governor.
“What we think is the likely outcome of this confusion, is that people will believe that they have rights that they may not in fact have,” Steinheimer added.
She said her group strongly recommends people who can’t pay their rent to notify their landlords in writing before rent is due, or no later than seven days after rent is due.
Renters should explain why they cannot pay rent due to COVID-19 and keep all documents that support why they can’t pay, Steinheimer said.
In a video call with reporters last week, State Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, said he was working on legislation to place “a strong moratorium on evictions,” and create a structure for renters to gradually pay back rent so they aren’t immediately hit with a large back rent payment at the end of the crisis.
On Twitter, Wiener lauded the Judicial Council’s move, adding “More work remains to ensure people don’t get evicted after the emergency ends. But this is a powerful step.”
Last week, renter Jeanne Russell who lost her job as a massage therapist in Grass Valley, said she was worried California would see a surge in homelessness without more protections. She said she was frightened she could lose her home.
Reacting to the news on Monday, Russell said “holding evictions isn’t enough.”
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