SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Eviction cases soared across California in the year after the last portion of a statewide moratorium lapsed, a CalMatters analysis of court data shows.
The elevated numbers — in some places beyond pre-pandemic levels — show a significant portion of renters remain at risk of losing their homes, despite the state’s rollout of a $5 billion rent relief program during the pandemic and a yearslong pause on many eviction cases that many landlords have said disrupted their businesses and income. A nationwide study published this year found increases in eviction filings are associated with slight upticks in the population of homeless people living in shelters.
The statewide moratorium was extended until June 2022 for those who had applied for rental assistance by March, barring evictions in cases where tenants had not paid rent and said they couldn’t because of financial hardship wrought by the pandemic. The law didn’t stop evictions completely — thousands were still locked out under various exceptions — but it dropped cases to record lows. After it ended, a patchwork of local protections for tenants kicked in for cities that had passed their own eviction limits, which then phased out later in 2022 or earlier this year.
Recently obtained data from when the statewide moratorium was lifted through the summer of 2023 show that in a dozen of the state’s most populous counties the average monthly eviction filings surpassed pre-pandemic averages.
Counties that extended local moratoria also are seeing waves of landlords seeking to remove tenants, albeit delayed until after their own rules end. That’s led to particularly acute spikes this year in Alameda County and Los Angeles counties.
In June, the month prior to Oakland’s local moratorium sunsetting, landlords filed nearly 800 eviction cases in Alameda County, the highest monthly total in at least a decade. During the three previous years, under local or state moratoria, they filed fewer than 100 cases a month. The average number of evictions filed in the county in 2019 was 324 a month.
The post-moratoria spikes could reverse a nearly decade-long trend of evictions falling, both in California and nationwide. While the overall number of eviction cases filed post-pandemic remains far lower than the peak years following the Great Recession, researchers and tenants’ advocates said they were dismayed that while the moratorium and rental assistance kept eviction filings relatively low for about three years, those state interventions don’t appear to have significantly blunted the number of evictions sought afterward.
"We’re facing the eviction cliff we tried to prevent during the pandemic," said Tim Thomas, a sociologist and director of the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley who analyzed the data for CalMatters. "Being back to normal this quickly is concerning."
Thomas attributed the wave of eviction filings to a combination of state and local moratoria expiring, inflation and the recent expiration of several other pandemic aid programs that kept families afloat, such as expanded food assistance and loosened eligibility to stay on Medi-Cal.
Landlords’ groups say the yearslong moratoria gave property owners no recourse when tenants failed to pay rent even when the economy started to recover during the pandemic, and said lasting rental debt from the pandemic is leading landlords to now be more aggressive in seeking evictions.
Landlords can only file for evictions over unpaid rent from the past 12 months, but that does not forgive old debt, and tenants’ advocates say there’s little to stop landlords from applying newly paid rent to old debt. The National Equity Atlas, a research group, estimates that as of September, 605,000 California households owed a total of $1.8 billion in back rent.
A state program that was open from March 2021 through March 2022 required landlords and tenants to apply for federally-funded rental assistance to cover back rent from the pandemic before landlords could seek an eviction. But thousands who applied are still waiting for the aid to cover debts from that time period while the program appears to be on track to run out of money. Many landlords said they had trouble handling the program’s red tape or had tenants who weren’t approved for assistance for every month that they owed rent.
"You’ve got to anticipate that there’s going to be an increase (in eviction cases), because there hadn’t been any filed in three years," said Chris Moore, a landlord who owns about 20 units in Oakland.
Moore blamed the moratoria, which he said were overly broad, for "creating a culture" of permitting the nonpayment of rent even for tenants who were working and had income.
Tenants’ advocates, however, also blamed recent rent increases for the high number of filings. Even in counties that haven’t been governed by any eviction limits since last summer, cases filed remained above pre-pandemic averages more than a year later. Landlords who are subject to a 2019 rent cap law have been allowed to raise rent on tenants by as much as 10% this year, due to last year’s record inflation, though some cities have stricter caps.
Tenants are "unable to pay current rent," said Gilberto Vera, senior attorney for housing at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.
In San Diego County, eviction filings peaked at more than 1,000 in October 2022, and this year have see-sawed closer to their pre-pandemic average of 723 a month. Some smaller counties — such as Kern, Ventura, Stanislaus and Tulare — have returned to seeing cases filed at slightly lower rates than pre-pandemic, as of August.
But in some counties — including Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Mateo — the number of cases of tenants facing eviction increased this year by more than 10% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the CalMatters analysis. The highest leap was in Santa Clara County, where evictions filed in 2023 through August were more than 35% higher than in 2019, on average.
Eviction filings do not necessarily mean a tenant gets kicked out. But the court filing — known as an unlawful detainer — starts a legal process with strict timetables that could result in a landlord being granted legal possession of the unit, allowing them to send a sheriff’s deputy to perform a lockout.
The wave has swamped tenants’ attorneys, most of whom work for understaffed legal aid organizations that represent low-income residents. Few tenants have attorneys in eviction court, compared to landlords who are represented most of the time. Linda Yu, co-director of the housing unit at the East Bay Community Law Center, said many tenants risk being evicted unlawfully without an attorney to defend their case.
"It’s been chaotic," Yu said, on a day Alameda County Superior Court had 100 cases scheduled to be heard. "The court system has not been prepared for this influx of evictions following the moratoriums lifting and we are now paying the price."
Alameda County Superior Court spokesperson Paul Rosynsky told CalMatters last week that the timelines set by state law prevent the court from reducing caseloads, but court officials have alerted additional judges to make room on their calendars to hear eviction cases.
"The court system has not been prepared for this influx of evictions following the moratoriums lifting and we are now paying the price."
LINDA YU, CO-DIRECTOR OF HOUSING, EAST BAY COMMUNITY LAW CENTER
The recent eviction case spikes put California in line with other Democratic states that extended tenant protections during the pandemic well beyond a federal moratorium, such as Oregon or Minnesota, Thomas said.
"Liberal states definitely had the most severe whiplash, going from zero to above historical averages," he said. "It’s a complicated story because you had more tenant protections than ever before but also more gentrification, and a lot more housing instability in these states."
Kyle Nelson, a senior policy and research analyst at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy who has studied evictions in Los Angeles County, said based on how long it took for evictions to stabilize after the Great Recession, some counties should expect cases to remain elevated for years.
CalMatters obtained more than a year of data from courts in 19 of the state’s most populous counties showing the number of eviction cases filed each month through August 2023, along with nearly a decade of corresponding historical figures compiled by the Judicial Council, the agency governing the state’s court system.
In counties that did not extend additional local eviction protections after the state law expired, eviction filings began spiking the month before the statewide moratorium ended and reached their peaks in late 2022. But they remain elevated.
The court process allows for landlords and tenants to settle a case before it goes to trial, which could include a payment plan to avoid eviction or an agreement to leave.
But tenants’ advocates point out there are numerous ways a tenant could also be "informally evicted," by moving out due to the threat of a court case. The filings data do not include those cases, or show if a tenant moved out during a court case. Eviction cases are sealed from public view — but not if the tenant loses in court, making it more difficult for them to rent again.
Landlords’ associations said most property owners only file for an eviction as a "last resort."
"Filing an unlawful detainer is not something that’s taken lightly," said Lucinda Lilley, immediate past president of the Southern California Rental Housing Association in San Diego County. "To work with the renter is much more advantageous to everyone involved."
Lilley praised San Diego County’s rollout of COVID rental assistance and said the association supports the creation of permanent programs to provide short-term help with rent — "a bridging of the gap for people who may have a tough time for a couple of months and they just need some assistance to avoid that termination of tenancy."
"Landlords are bearing the brunt of this," she said.
In eviction court in Sacramento one recent morning, tenants said the process felt designed to pressure them.
To avoid a trial, Keyarra Dunn made a deal with her landlord to stay in her apartment by agreeing to pay a portion of her back rent in the next four days, and the remainder — more than $7,000 — in three and a half weeks.
Dunn, 23, said she knew of nowhere else to live if she and her four young children had to move out. She acknowledged that she had fallen behind on rent for at least four months, but said she was getting divorced, had been in and out of the hospital and spends much of her income as a car rental shop manager on child care.
She said it would have helped to have had an attorney, and wasn’t sure she could come up with the money in time. Because the settlement was made instead of a judge’s ruling, it had all the force of a court order. If she can’t keep her end of the deal, the eviction process would move ahead quickly in court.
"I felt like I had to," she said of making the agreement. "It was like, now or never, to pay a rent amount that I might not have all of."
California Divide reporter Felicia Mello contributed to this story.
Data compiled by Ben Christopher, Jeanne Kuang, Alejandro Lazo, Felicia Mello and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde.