Despite California’s freeze on most evictions during the COVID-19 crisis, some landlords are sending legal notices saying they’ll start the eviction process unless the tenant pays up within 72 hours — or moves out.
Landlords cannot currently ask courts to physically remove tenants who do not pay their rent on time, but tenant advocates say these warnings — formally called a “three-day notice to pay rent or quit” — are both legal and jarring.
“It’s still very frightening to most tenants to get this notice,” said Sarah Steinheimer, regional counsel with Legal Services of Northern California, which serves low-income residents. “It’s telling them, ‘If you don’t do one of these two things, we will start legal action against you.’"
On April 6, the Judicial Council of California, the policy making body of the state’s courts, suspended most eviction and foreclosure proceedings statewide until 90 days after the coronavirus state of emergency is lifted.
Its ruling, however, allowed landlords to start the eviction process for tenants who fail to pay rent.
“As a result, tenants may get notices, they may get legal papers, or they may get things that look like legal papers,” said Brian Augusta, legislative advocate with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which helps low-income residents. “Our field offices are continuing to hear from tenants who are concerned about what all this means for them and what they should do if they can’t pay the rent.”
While some landlords have worked out payment plans with renters, Augusta noted that tenants are obligated to eventually pay up.
“At some point, when all of this crisis is lifted, that rent is still owed,” he said.
Dozens of local governments in California have passed renter-relief laws. Last month, the city of Sacramento approved its emergency ordinance, which stops property owners from evicting residential tenants but requires renters to pay overdue rent back to landlords within 120 days of lifting the emergency.
A spokesperson for the California Apartment Association, which represents thousands of landlords across the state, said the group does not recommend owners send out these warnings, unless absolutely necessary.
“What we want owners to do is communicate with residents. Express their concern and let residents know that they understand because we’re all in this situation. Make sure that there’s that constant open line of communication,” said spokesperson Debra Carlton. “I think if you’re not hearing from a resident, maybe that’s where we’re seeing owners serve a three-day notice to residents.”
Before the eviction freeze is lifted, Augusta said policy makers must find a solution for the many Californians who still won’t be able to pay all of their back rent later this year.
“Otherwise, at some point in the future,” he said, “we’re going to be right back to this potential threat of an enormous tsunami of evictions.”
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