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California eviction moratorium is ‘a real nightmare’ for renters to understand — here’s what you need to know

After California passed a last-minute bill to suspend evictions just before this month’s rent checks came due, the federal government announced a moratorium on evictions just a day later, leaving tenants and landlords in the Golden State wondering how to make sense of it all.

“This whole area… can make your head spin,” Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged Wednesday after signing California’s new law on Monday, helping to avert potential evictions of an estimated 5.4 million renters.

Experts largely say that California’s legislation supersedes an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will be the dominant law in the state. It bans any evictions for back rent owed so far and forces landlords to civil court to collect debts, but requires renters to pay at least 25% of rent moving forward.

Renters are not automatically protected, however, and must take steps to get there.

“It’s going to be a real nightmare to try to educate tenants on what to do under the new [California] law,” Michael Trujillo, attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which provides legal help to tenants, told MarketWatch.

Basic steps California renters must take to avoid eviction include paying at least a quarter of five months’ rent — September through January — by Jan. 31, and communicating with their landlord, including responding to any notices of non-payment by officially stating on a form that they face hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates and others, including the state, know that further advice must be geared to individuals, and say they are ready to help people navigate the new rules.

Laura Matter, attorney for Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, stressed that “protection under the law is not automatic,” adding that tenants groups such as hers will be “making sure… that landlords are complying with their notice requirements under the law.”

The state unveiled a website, Housing Is Key, this week. It provides information for tenants, landlords and homeowners in different languages, as well as links to resources.

California residents likely face a different journey through the rules than renters and landlords in other states because the CDC’s order explicitly says it does not apply in places where protections are the same or greater. Newsom said Wednesday that California’s moratorium — which stretches one month past the federal ban — clearly supersedes the new federal eviction ban: “Our protections are not impacted by those federal rules and regulations,” the governor said in a news conference.

Some experts wonder whether California tenants can use the CDC order as a defense, though. “It’s not clear if it can apply on a case-by-case basis,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.

Another potential complication: Different city- and county-level protections that may have previously been put in place for renters and landlords. California’s Assembly Bill 3088 supersedes any new local moratoriums, but does not override those that California counties previously passed, if they are still in effect. Matter said most of Bakersfield’s home of Kern County offered no eviction protections, so state protections will help those residents. But other places have had different protections, conditions and deadlines, such as Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County, which says on its website that it is reviewing the impact of the new state law on the county’s existing moratorium.

For more: Thousands in Silicon Valley in danger of eviction as end of California moratorium nears

Trujillo also pointed out that there are different protections for different time periods. Unpaid rent from March to August cannot be used to evict tenants who declare financial hardship — and in some cases provide proof to their landlords — because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for September to January, tenants must pay a quarter of their rent, either each month or in a lump sum by the Jan. 31 deadline. If they don’t, they risk eviction early in 2021.

“The most important thing for California renters to know is that if they get a notice from their landlord to pay or get out and they have been unable to pay because of COVID-19 economic impacts, they should sign and return the ‘Declaration of COVID-19-related financial distress’ immediately,” said Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, managing attorney for San Francisco-based Public Advocates, referencing a declaration landlords are legally required to provide tenants when serving what is referred to as a “pay or quit” notice.

As for what recourse landlords and homeowners have if they are struggling to make mortgage payments, owners of up to four properties or units may apply for forbearance to delay their payments. Federally backed mortgages — property owners can check with whoever they send payments to if their loans are backed by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, etc. — are eligible for forbearance under the CARES Act. For mortgages that are not federally backed, lenders must explain why if they deny those requests.

In the Bay Area, where high home prices and rents had created a crisis long before the pandemic, affordable-housing developers and owners are working to keep tenants housed.

“Our members who are developers are working closely with our housing agency about how to reconfigure the reserves we’re required to have while supporting our tenants,” Fernando Martí, co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations, said in an interview. “The way we approach it is we have to figure out how to keep buildings going and keep tenants in place.”

While the immediate threat of evictions of possibly millions of Californians has been averted for now, lawyers like Trujillo, advocacy groups and the state itself are bracing for more questions and concerns from anyone who could be affected.

Experts, lawyers, lawmakers and the governor agree, though, that eviction risks are merely delayed, and have not gone away.

“The federal order does nothing to address the massive amount of debt that out-of-work people are facing, and even in California, renters will be left with huge amounts of civil debt come January,” Tepperman-Gelfant said. “It’s good to remove the imminent threat, but we have to have a systemic fix on rent cancellation or rent relief or we have just kicked the can down the road.”

MarketWatch staff writer Jacob Passy contributed to this story.

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