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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
Suresh Wadhwani, a Bay Area landlord was surprised by the ruling that allowed his tenants to break their contract with him. They could pay no rent and he was not able to evict them due the pandemic.
California’s Covid-19 rent relief program, Housing Is Key provides protections for renters who are given an eviction notice because they are unable to pay their rent or other charges between March 1, 2020 through September 2021 due to COVID-19-related financial distress.
“I invested in California in good faith as there was a housing shortage. I took loans and bought properties for low-income residents to live in. Now I am in the position that my conduit loan has come due but my bank refuses to extend loans to me,” he said.
Wadhwani does not qualify for a loan. He does not meet the risk guidelines of the bank. Forty percent of his tenants are defaulting on rent payments.
“We have banked with Chase for years but the underwriter is hamstrung by the bank’s guidelines for loan disbursement. My company is now considered a high-risk investment, ” said Wadhwani. He will have to do a fire sale of his property or go into receivership.
At first, only ten percent of his tenants were defaulting on their rent payments but news soon spread and the tenant defaulting percentage climbed up from 10 -20 to 40 percent. Wadhwani is stumped. His contract with the bank stands but he feels his contract with the tenant is not worth the paper it is written on.
As of August 26, landlords are no longer barred from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent because of the pandemic. The Supreme Court blocked the extension of the federal eviction moratorium. However, California is governed by state laws. California’s rent relief program, Housing Is Key stays.
In California, this moratorium on evictions is in place till September according to the governor’s office. Tenants who have notified their landlord that they have been financially affected by COVID-19 and are paying at least 25% of their rent per month are safe from eviction till September.
To be eligible for aid, tenants must make less than 80% of the local median income. Median income varies from county to county. The aid takes into account the number of people living in the tenant’s household. In order to prove their eligibility, the tenants can provide documentation, like a recent pay stub or a termination letter, however, it is not required. As long as they attest in writing that they have been impacted, that is sufficient. They can demonstrate housing instability or risk of homelessness by showing they owe back rent or have an overdue utility bill.
The assistance is available to all renters who meet the eligible income levels, regardless of whether they are legal residents or not. Citizenship status is not a requirement to access rent relief.
Housing Is Key provides Emergency Rental Assistance funds to low-income renters and their landlords. The bill expands eligibility even in cases where the tenant may have moved out of their home during the pandemic. The landlord can now apply for back rent. Read more at evictionlab.org
Wadhwani admits he is getting money from the government for which he has had to file extensive paperwork. Additionally up until June, in order to file the paperwork he had needed to handhold the tenant without whose co-operation and signature the documents could not be filed. Some tenants played hardball and a previously cordial relationship between landlord and tenant has now turned adversarial.
Landlords could look for excuses to remove tenants for cause. They can make a case that the tenant has damaged the property or is making a nuisance in order to evict the tenant. This situation could be encouraging landlords to file complaints with the city for building code violations alleging that the infractions were made by the tenant.
For instance, the Sunnyvale city office has received letters reporting garbage behind the building owned by Mamie Dairiki on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. After an inspection, the city found building code violations in the units. Struggling small businesses (Mamie Dairiki’s tenants), have to pay for the rectifications to meet city requirements. One tenant, Vidya Gurikar of Silver Spoon, a gourmet food caterer who has been hard hit by the pandemic, may have to fork out over $30,000 towards fixing these violations.
“These changes, made without a permit, were made before we leased this place!” said Gurikar. “It is Pandora’s box. I pay to fix one thing only to find that the city has found another thing built without a permit. The new directives from the city office are crippling,” said a panic-stricken Gurikar who is desperately looking for a way out of this nightmare.
“People have been evicted in retaliation for reporting their landlord or for their children testing positive for lead poisoning,” said Dr. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, Principal Investigator and Leader, Social Epidemiology to Eliminate Disparities (SEED) Lab, Ohio State University at a recent Ethnic Media Services panel on the housing crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Having someone occupy the rental unit who is not on the rent agreement is cause for eviction. People have been evicted for bogus accusations of damage to the property, damage that would be considered normal wear and tear,” she said.
“When I have 40 percent of my tenants defaulting,” said Wadhwani, “I can’t possibly make a case for eviction against each tenant on these grounds.”
After September 30, landlords may be able to proceed with evictions as long as they can prove that they or their tenants have attempted to apply for rent relief. They must show that they didn’t receive a response on their application from either the state or their tenant, or their tenant doesn’t qualify or meet the income requirements.
Wadhwani thinks that California will extend the eviction moratorium.
“We call on state and local jurisdictions to take every action they can to safeguard their most vulnerable residents. These actions should include permitting evictions for non-payment of rent only after landlords and tenants have sought Emergency Rental Assistance funds,” said Secretary Marcia L. Fudge on the Eviction Moratorium.
California has a rental assistance program in place to pay landlords the rent due. Only 10% of the total aid that people have applied for has been disbursed. The state has distributed only $37.4 million in relief to a little more than 31,641 households so far, an average of $11,844 per household (see Dashboard). The disbursement of $5.2 billion in federal funds earmarked for it, has gone slowly in order to ensure that no duplicate payments are made.
“Some jurisdictions are not getting the amount of rental assistance that they need to cover the needs of their community,” Francisco Duenas, Executive Director, Housing Now! California said at the Ethnic Media Services briefing. In Los Angeles, the program opened only for one month. More requests were received than the funds allocated. Tenants who missed that window could not apply anywhere.
“Right now the problem is not that there is no money to help the tenant and the landlords. The problem is administration and bureaucracy, just the processes to get that money out to the people,” said Duenas.
Tenants can apply for emergency rental assistance. If they qualify, the tenant or landlord will receive 100% of the rental debt and the eviction will be stopped, according to the latest California moratorium bill. This will continue to be an option until March 2022. Read more at evictionlab.org
Over 2 million renter households in California reported “little to no confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“These tenants don’t need to show any proof of their inability to pay. On the other hand, no bank is going to give me a loan if I have on my record that I defaulted on my loan payment,” said a harried Wadhwani.
“Many tenants will move out because they don’t want an eviction on their record as it will limit their chance of getting housing in the future,” said Francisco Duenas.
Both the landlord and tenant are bound in a headlock of survival. California’s shortage of affordable housing is the real loser in the process.
“I am wary of taking a risk in the California housing market. I may look at investing in Reno, Nevada,” said Wadhwani.
Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.