SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California judicial leaders are considering an early end to statewide emergency orders suspending foreclosures and evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, while state lawmakers on Wednesday scrambled to expand the safeguards.
The courts’ move prompted objections from lawmakers and advocates that they may be acting too soon and disproportionately harming minorities in the midst of civil unrest over the deaths of black people at the hands of police.
The state’s Judicial Council in early April delayed all eviction cases from moving forward as one of 13 steps responding to the pandemic. Among others was setting bail statewide at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to reduce the population in jails, for fear they would become hotbeds of infections.
Council members, who comprise the rule-making arm of the judicial system, are to finish voting Wednesday on whether to lift three of the rules as California reduces stay-at-home orders that helped slow the spread of the virus.
The rules protecting delinquent renters and homeowners would end Aug. 3, while the bail order would end June 20. The council initially said the orders would stay in place for 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom eventually lifts the emergency declaration that he issued in early March.
“They’re actively contributing to racial injustice” if they lift the orders, argued Matthew Warren, a staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, noting that minorities are more likely to be employed in service jobs and laid off during the pandemic.
San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju similarly objected that ending the bail order “will disproportionately devastate communities of color.”
California already had a massive homelessness and housing affordability crisis, said Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco, and “during this pandemic, millions of renters have been hanging by a thread.”
“The last thing that we want to do at this very moment is to force people out on the street,” said Chiu.
He criticized the council for acting before lawmakers can consider their own protections, meaning that delinquent tenants would immediately owe all past due rent once the eviction ban ends.
“We’ve asked the judicial council to put off this particular decision, and not consider opening up the courts for eviction lawsuits in a couple of weeks because I think that could be catastrophic for so many suffering Californians,” said Chiu. “Folks just don’t have the savings. They’ve maxed out their credit cards. You’ve got too many folks who very likely will not be able to pay back rent.”
Chiu announced legislation Wednesday that would bar renters from being evicted for non-payment for 90 days after state and local coronavirus emergency orders end. It would give renters another 12 months before landlords could file civil actions to collect unpaid rent. Tenants would have to keep up with their current rent during that 12 months or potentially face eviction.
“They could sue you, but just through a different route but without being able to force you out of your home,” explained Chiu.
But he says that even in the best-case scenario, that bill won’t become law until the end of the summer.
“It could be that we have months during which landlords could go to courts file eviction lawsuits for folks because they can’t pay this back rent and that could be catastrophic,” said Chiu.
Patricia Mendoza of Imperial Beach, a single mother of two, repeatedly wiped away tears during a news conference supporting Chiu’s bill.
Mendoza, a member of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said she lost her job with a non-emergency medical transport company in April. Even when she was employed, she said 75% of her $2,000 monthly income went to rent.
“What’s going to happen when I get a bill for all the past due rent?” she said, choking up. “We never want to tell our children that we’re going to be homeless.
The council said it was acting in response to Newsom’s decision to allow most counties to lift some isolation orders, and in anticipation that lawmakers will act.
Now that there are numerous variations by county, “a statewide rule no longer serves our need to be flexible and responsive based on local health conditions,” council administrator Martin Hoshino said in a statement.
But lawmakers and housing advocates predicted mass evictions, citing a projection by UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy that 365,000 rental households are in danger of eviction in Los Angeles County alone.
“A disproportionate number of those are among people of color,” Warren said.
California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon said most of the state’s major cities still have bans on evicting those affected by the pandemic at a time when many landlords also are hurting financially. The Judicial Council “did just one big blanket cutoff,” he said, applying it to all evictions regardless of whether it was related to the virus.
In a statement to FOX40, the California Apartment Association, which represents property owners, applauded the move to resume eviction cases Aug. 3.
“It’s about providing an opportunity for both the landlord and the tenant to make their case in court,” said Bannon’s statement in part. “Eviction should always be the last resort… We urge all providers of rental housing to consider the individual circumstances of each resident and work out payment plans that are reasonable and won’t break their tenants’ banks.”
As for the $0 bail order, the Judicial Council said it kept 20,000 suspects out of jail while they await trial.
Justice Marsha Slough, a member of the council, in a statement urged local courts to continue keeping bail at $0 as needed.
Eric Nuñez, president of the state’s police chiefs’ association, praised the reconsideration, noting that chiefs feared the bail rule “would result in inappropriate early release of potentially dangerous offenders.”
A number of law enforcement leaders publicized cases where suspects were released without bail and quickly arrested again. Slough and Raju countered that crime rates have not notably increased.
Jonathan Underland, spokesman for the End Money Bail campaign, said the zero bail order would end “at a time when the racial and economic injustice of wealth-based incarceration is crystal clear.
Voters will have the chance in November to consider a ballot measure that would decide whether to replace the current money bail system.