The patchwork of local and state laws passed to protect tenants during COVID-19 never amounted to a full-on "moratorium" or "ban" on evictions. Just ask San Luis Obispo renter and single mother Loring Chanel Wiley.
Wiley lost her duplex apartment in SLO on Aug. 26 when SLO County Sheriff's deputies showed up at her residence to enforce an eviction order. The origin of the eviction, according to Wiley, stemmed from a time shortly before COVID-19, when an abusive ex-boyfriend had broken into her apartment and caused a neighborhood disturbance.
After that, Wiley said her landlord filed for eviction. Mere days after that, COVID-19 hit, SLO County passed emergency tenant protections, and the California Judicial Council suspended eviction and foreclosure proceedings.
At that point, Wiley didn't think that her case could move forward.
"I was told, 'Don't worry about it. No evictions are taking place. Your landlord is trying to scare you,'" Wiley recalled someone from the SLO County Superior Court telling her over the phone.
But within that amalgam of new state and local rules were holes and exceptions—including for eviction cases filed prior to COVID-19 and those deemed necessary to protect public health and safety.
"There was never an 'eviction moratorium,'" explained Stephanie Barclay, legal director of the SLO Legal Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income residents. "There was a temporary stay on evictions, first at the county level and then at the state level. Those stays have expired, but even when they were in place, they did not provide protection against all evictions, so some evictions have continued to be able to move forward."
In August, after five months, Wiley's case went ahead and her landlord secured a court order to evict. Wiley, though, believing her tenancy was protected, missed the hearing and didn't move her belongings out in time before authorities arrived to lock her out.
"I lost everything—my work laptop, my family photos," she said. "I ended up losing my job as a result. It's been really, really difficult."
Wiley's experience doesn't stand alone in SLO County. According to public records, the SLO County Sheriff's Office carried out 14 such lockouts between March 18 and Sept. 15. And that's likely a fraction of the overall evictions that took place, given that lockouts are typically a last-resort step for landlords.
Records of unlawful detainers (eviction lawsuits) spanning the months of the pandemic weren't available in SLO County Superior Court at press time. SLO Legal Assistance's Barclay said that those documents are sealed for 60 days after they're filed, and are only unsealed if the landlord obtains a judgment against the tenant within 60 days.
Wiley, whose case began in March and ended in August, said she hasn't been able to access the records for her own eviction.
"I still have not been able to get a copy of the paperwork," she said.
Across SLO County, tenants are reaching out for legal assistance in record numbers. Housing-related calls to the SLO Legal Assistance Foundation are up 300 percent from this time last year, Barclay said.
"Since COVID-19 hit, we've been keeping up with the ever-changing laws and regulations and trying to educate the public," Barclay told New Times. "There has been significant confusion about landlord and tenant rights and obligations under these various overlapping schemes."
As of Sept. 1, California has a new state law to govern evictions amid the pandemic, supplanting the confusing set of emergency orders. Under this law, tenants are obligated to start paying at least 25 percent of their rent each month to avoid being evicted in February 2021. Rent owed from March 2020 to August 2020 cannot be a cause for eviction. Landlords can start recovering back rent in small claims court beginning in March 2021.
- File Photo By Steve E. Miller
- VULNERABLE Despite various tenant protections, SLO County Superior Court has been issuing eviction orders during COVID-19.
Evictions may still move ahead in cases of missed rent due to reasons unrelated to COVID-19, lease violations, and nuisances. If a landlord tries to evict for non-payment of rent, they must now provide the tenant a COVID-19 financial hardship form, which he or she can fill out.
Barclay said tenants who are threatened with eviction should seek assistance sooner rather than later. She encouraged those who can't pay their rent in full to document their COVID-19 hardship and communicate it to their landlord in writing.
That's a necessary step to receive the protections under the law.
"In many cases, even if a tenant is covered by an eviction protection, that protection isn't automatic, so the tenant still has to act in response to an eviction notice or lawsuit," Barclay said.
No matter the predicament, Barclay said tenants should first work to understand their rights before abiding by their landlord's demands. It could be that the landlord is not adhering to the law.
"Sometimes landlords genuinely don't know what the proper legal process is, but sometimes they assume that the tenant doesn't know their rights and will simply move out in response to an eviction notice," Barclay said. "It is always frustrating and sad when a tenant doesn't call us until after they have moved out or after they have a judgment against them. At that point, there is nothing we can do to help."
Call (805) 543-5140 to talk to the SLO Legal Assistance Foundation or visit readyslo.org for more information about the state eviction protections. Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.