The coronavirus pandemic, which has already fanned the flames of California’s affordable housing crisis, is igniting a three-sided war between landlords, tenants, and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
On Wednesday the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a nonprofit group crucial to last year’s passage of the state’s rent control law, declared a rent strike throughout California in an effort to pressure Newsom into forgiving rent and mortgage payments in the wake of the COVID-19 financial crisis. In a statement, the alliance said that renters—which account for 45 percent of the state’s households—would be facing “a tsunami of evictions” otherwise.
The group is “inviting people” not to pay rent — starting May 1st — if they can “safely do so.”
The idea of California’s millions of renters skipping their payments is a response to a partial eviction moratorium Newsom issued Friday, which advocates say doesn’t go far enough.
“He is saying one thing about helping renters, but not backing it up with policy or legal protections,” said Anya Svanoe, an alliance organizer.
Indeed, since Newsom’s executive order was announced, tenant advocates have slammed the order’s requirement that renters provide documents showing the pandemic cost them their income or their health. Activists also are angry that the order expires on June 1, allowing evictions to resume.
Talking points developed by eviction defense legal nonprofits and to The Real Deal argue: “At best, the order extends the time period before tenants are physically locked out by the sheriff.”
A message left Wednesday with the governor’s office was not immediately returned. Amid the pandemic, Newsom has often been the lone face of the California government. State lawmakers recessed last month after passing a coronavirus emergency spending bill.
Landlords view Newsom’s — and the tenants’ — actions differently.
“Calls for a general rent strike, where nobody pays the rent and back rent never gets paid are irresponsible, unethical, and illegal,” said Thomas Bannon, executive director of the California Apartment Association.
Bannon noted the landlord lobby has supported a California eviction moratorium so long as residents pay up “within a reasonable time frame when the crisis subsides.”
Bannon argued landlords rely on rent payments to cover staff salaries and make their own mortgage payments.
Newsom announced a deal last week with major mortgage lenders to place a partial moratorium on foreclosures. The moratorium, though, does not apply to landlords who own more than four units.
One such landlord is Neil Shekhter, whose NMS Properties owns about 2,000 apartment units in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Shekhter said he would not order evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, but he also said rent money was needed for mortgage payments.
“In a perfect world, we would get a mortgage deferral from lenders,” Shekther said. “But the problem with most property owners including us is that we have mortgage payments to pay.”
Added Shekhter, “I think personally the federal government should pause all payments for 90 days. Give everybody an opportunity to stay healthy and feed your family.”