Santa Clara County could soon face an unprecedented wave of evictions that threatens to displace tens of thousands of residents and more than triple the homeless population during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a sobering report released last month.
The grim predictions, detailed in a report by Working Partnerships USA and the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, found that the region could be poised for mass displacement as soon as next month. A premature end to a moratorium on evictions, coupled with the loss of federal unemployment benefits, could be just enough to force people out of their homes when rent becomes due.
The double whammy puts an estimated 43,490 renter households in Santa Clara County at high risk of eviction, threatening to skyrocket the county's homeless population by as much as 225%.
"This impossible situation is the impending eviction time-bomb," according to the report. "When the back rent comes due, landlords ... could kick thousands of families out of their homes. Unless policymakers take action, we're facing a scenario of crushing debt, mass evictions, and a surge in homelessness."
But the problem is hardly inevitable. The report notes that a combination of robust landlord-tenant mediation, renter relief funds and an extended ban on evictions could help stave off evictions related to COVID-19.
And early evidence shows that some communities, particularly Mountain View, may already be on pace to keep most of its vulnerable residents housed through the pandemic.
Since March, Santa Clara County has had a moratorium on evictions preventing landlords from ousting tenants due to nonpayment of rent, provided those tenants can show proof that they lost income or racked up medical bills due to COVID-19. The protections have always been short-term fixes that have been continuously renewed as the pandemic stretched deep into the summer. Right now the moratorium is set to expire on Aug. 31, which county supervisors could extend into September.
The moratorium was seen as a necessary safeguard after more than a million California workers, including 200,000 in Santa Clara County, filed new claims for unemployment benefits between March and May of this year. Many were pushed out of work by public health restrictions that banned most nonessential and indoor activities.
With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising in Santa Clara County and many businesses still partially or fully shut down, the report by Working Partnerships flags the need to keep the moratorium in place for as long as the crisis continues. State legislation proposed by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) would do just that — AB 1436 would prohibit renters from being evicted for not paying rent until 90 days after the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration, or April 1, 2021, whichever comes sooner.
Barring an extension, however, the full September rent will be due for all county residents, and that has nonprofits scrambling to prepare for a crush of tenants receiving three-day notices to pay or quit. Project Sentinel, which provides landlord-tenant mediation for eight county cities, including Mountain View and Palo Alto, has been gearing up for a flood of calls from both sides.
"We anticipate getting a lot more inquiries from tenants who can't make full rent and landlords itching to get back what's owed," said Emily Hislop, a program manager for Project Sentinel.
The constant uncertainty over if and when the moratorium will be extended has made it difficult to plan ahead, however, complicated further by a tapestry of state and local emergency protections against eviction that each have their own expiration date. Knowing what the future holds for tenants meant tuning in to Gov. Gavin Newsom's daily press conferences hoping for some kind of update.
"I would have the radio on at noon every day because the moratorium was supposed to end," Hislop said. "It just keeps happening down to the wire, and the landscape just keeps changing. When they pass something it's a sigh of relief, like we finally have certainty for the next month or two."
But is a massive wave of evictions coming once the moratorium expires? Hislop said she isn't so sure, at least not right away. Evictions don't happen overnight and must go through the lengthy court process, she said, and county courts have been both understaffed and difficult to access during the pandemic. Right now there is only one unlawful detainer judge for all of Santa Clara County.
There is also a state court order issued by the California Judicial Council blocking most evictions, which was adopted in April and remains in effect today.
Meanwhile, Hislop said she and others at Project Sentinel have been trying to get the word out that there are alternatives to jumping straight to eviction, and that landlords and tenants can work out a repayment plan through mediation. Getting both sides together at the same table for dispute resolution will be critical to avoid tenants losing their homes when the moratorium inevitably ends, she said.
"If a landlord thinks the only recourse is to go to court, they'll go to court. But if the county makes clear there are resolutions and landlords are aware of the laws, I think that can help make the problem manageable," Hislop said. "If not, I think there will be a flood of eviction notices."
While the moratorium may be keeping people housed for now, worries are already swirling that families could be hopelessly behind on back rent. The Working Partnerships report estimated that many households, already paying a premium on rent, may be in arrears by as much as $7,000 this month.
But the problem may not extend to every city in the county. Mountain View residents, for the most part, appear to be keeping up with rental payments through the pandemic, Hislop said, in part because of a well-resourced rent relief program funded through the city.
In May, the city of Mountain View dumped a grand total of $2.6 million into a rent relief fund for tenants out of work due to COVID-19, either due to illness or loss of employment — an amount surpassing nearly every city and county in the Bay Area. And by the latest tally, it appears to be helping thousands of residents stay housed.
As of last week, about 850 households received a check to pay for one month's rent, while 325 households have received an additional check to pay for a second month's rent, according to Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency (CSA), which runs the rent relief program. Another roughly 600 households are still in the pipeline to receive rental assistance, he said, with each check currently averaging $2,190.
Though the program is open to households making up to 120% of the area median income, or about $153,000 for a family of four, the majority of the people receiving the funds are the neediest residents. About 55% of the recipients make less than $40,000 a year.
Even with the huge contribution from the city, Myers said CSA "shook the trees and beat the bushes" to raise an extra $1.2 million, bolstering the rent relief fund to $3.8 million to keep it from running dry. And even with the padded budget, he said it's likely the program will run out of money before the end of the eviction moratorium, at which point he'll have to come back to the city and other funders for more cash.
"We have to be prepared for the fact that the COVID-19 crisis is not ending," Myers said. "This is a nightmare that will continue to haunt our communities for a long time, and the people who are going to be the most adversely affected are those who are the most vulnerable."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.