California lawmakers propose extending eviction protections

Hundreds of thousands of California renters facing eviction next week could get another three months of protection under a bill top legislative leaders endorsed on Thursday.

The federal government sent billions of dollars to the states to help people who fell behind on their rent payments during the pandemic. California’s program will pay for 100% of people’s unpaid rent if they meet certain income requirements.

State law says tenants cannot be evicted as long as they have an application pending for rental assistance. But that law is set to expire on March 31. Meanwhile, so many people have applied for assistance that it is taking state officials longer than they thought to hand out the money.

As of Tuesday, just over 275,600 people had applications still pending, according to the California Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency. That number doesn’t include assistance programs operated by local governments. State officials won’t be able to approve all of those applications by March 31. Starting April 1, anyone who has unpaid rent can be evicted.

At the last moment, state lawmakers have decided to intervene. Thursday, two lawmakers — Assembly members Tim Grayson and Buffy Wicks, both Democrats — introduced a bill that would extend eviction protections for people with pending applications through the end of June. Lawmakers plan to have public hearings on the bill next week before voting to send it to Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 31.

"The Governor strongly supports an extension that continues to protect tenants well into the summer and ensures that every eligible applicant is protected under this nation-leading rent relief program as it winds down," his office said in an email Thursday.

The state has extended eviction protections multiple times during the pandemic, always over the objections of landlords who say they are being squeezed by, in some cases, going more than a year without receiving rent payments. Last year, Newsom said the chances of extending protections again were "very modest."

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Reactions to the bill were mixed. The largest landlord group, the California Apartment Association, supports the bill because, along with preventing some evictions, it would also stop local governments from passing their own, more stringent eviction laws.

"Consistency is very important," said Debra Carlton, the California Apartment Association’s executive vice president for state government affairs and compliance.

California’s eviction assistance program will stop taking new applications on April 1, so the proposed law would only protect people who have applied for assistance by that date. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a group that represents tenants, said lawmakers should also give people more time to apply. Anything less, they said, would be "a landlord bailout that results in thousands of families on the streets."

The bill is expected to move quickly through the Legislature. Thursday, the Legislature’s top two leaders — Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, both Democrats — released a joint statement saying the bill "will receive quick action."

"We made a commitment to those who are in line and they shouldn’t be harmed because of how long the process is taking," Rendon and Atkins said in a joint statement.

The extension will benefit people like Jenise Dixon, whose application for rental assistance has been pending since October. Dixon says she has lived in the same rent-controlled Los Angeles apartment for 19 years. She said she worked in the entertainment industry, but hasn’t had steady work since the pandemic started and soon fell behind on her rent payments.

"I’m one step away from homelessness," she said.

But her application for rental assistance is stuck because neither she nor her landlord can produce a lease. She said she’s submitted utility bills and other evidence to prove she lives in the apartment but to no avail.

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"Even if I’m approved, it’s not going to cover all the months that I’m behind," she said Tuesday during a news conference organized by housing advocates urging for an extension of eviction protections. "I’m just asking the people at the top, the lawmakers, to give the system a chance to catch up so that people like me don’t fall through the cracks."

So far, California paid out nearly $2.5 billion in rental assistance to just over 214,000 households, for an average assistance of $11,488. State officials say most of the money has gone to very low or extremely low-income households that earn less than 50% of their area’s median income. The program could soon run out of money. State officials had asked for an additional $1.9 billion from the federal government, but so far have only received about $200 million.

But tenants shouldn’t have to worry. Last month, Newsom signed a law allowing state money to cover the costs of the program should the federal money not cover all of it.