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August 7, 2020

Evictions rise in first month without moratorium

WATSONVILLE—Tenant advocates saw a modest increase in eviction notices in June, the month immediately following the Watsonville City Council’s decision to allow its citywide eviction moratorium to expire.

The council at its May 26 meeting voted 5-2—Mayor Rebecca Garcia and councilman Francisco Estrada voted “no”—to not extend the moratorium past its May 31 expiration date, and instead defer to tenant protections put in place by California’s Judicial Council.

Those state-level protections do not halt evictions from being filed, but they do stop the filings from being processed until 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifts the state of emergency related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sandra Silva, the directing attorney of California Rural Legal Assistance’s Watsonville office, said local filings began to pile up in the days after the city’s ban expired, and will come due when the Judicial Council’s protections are lifted. None of her clients were served notices during the moratorium, Silva said.

“This is very taxing on our clients, it’s very stressful,” Silva said. “Even though they can’t go forward [with the eviction] right now and get into court, having an unlawful detainer filed against you and being served with court papers is extremely stressful during this time.”

Those state-level protections might lift before their original expiration date. The Judicial Council in early June planned to vote on possibly ending them on Aug. 3, but suspended its vote after talking with Newsom, state legislators, residents and Judicial Council members.

The Judicial Council’s decision has also been challenged in court by landlords in Southern California who claim the council is overreaching with its decision.

The city’s moratorium was approved by the council to protect renters that had fallen into financial or medical instability because of Covid-19. That included those who had contracted the disease, had been laid off of work and were losing income because of the statewide stay-at-home order or were forced to take care of a family member deemed high-risk of severe illness.

It was not a rent forgiveness plan. Renters still had to pay what they could and were expected to pay back their outstanding rent within six months after the order expired.

The city council allowed the moratorium to expire on recommendation from the Eviction Moratorium Housing Taskforce, which said the Judicial Council’s protections made the city’s ban redundant. The taskforce, which included developers, property managers, nonprofit leaders, banks and tenant advocates, also said the majority of Watsonville renters were able to pay rent through the first three months of the pandemic and that only a small number of landlords were serving tenants with eviction notices.

Instead of extending the moratorium, the taskforce recommended city leaders throw their support behind government assistance such as the $3 trillion HEROES Act, Senate Bill 1410 and Assembly Bill 828

The HEROES Act would provide a 12-month moratorium on evictions, among other things. SB 1410, meanwhile, would help renters by covering 80 percent of unpaid rent directly attributable to the pandemic. AB 828 seeks to strengthen the Judicial Council’s rules on evictions. All three are still winding their way through their respective government process.

Some members of the taskforce disagreed with the group’s overall recommendations and said the moratorium should be extended through June—at the very least.

The Watsonville Law Center (WLC) was one such member. Adriana Melgoza, chief programs officer for the nonprofit legal assistance organization, said the expiration of the moratorium was premature and that the true effects of the pandemic—and the economic stagnation that came with it—are not yet known.

More than half of WLC clients are still unemployed and have not been able to pay rent in the past two months, Melgoza said. Most landlords have been understanding of—and sticking to—the six-month payback period, but some have not.

“It’s too early to determine what the effects are going to be for our community,” Melgoza said. “We have to figure out what’s the best way to work together—not only with legal aid but with the city, with landlords, with tenants—to best handle the situation. After all, no one is to blame for this situation and we want to make sure that we’re all working together to have a healthy community. It’s not healthy for community members to be evicted at this time.”

Silva said she was not involved in the taskforce meetings leading up to the council’s decision even though she was listed as a member. She has since been added to the taskforce. They last met on June 11, Silva said, and another meeting was to be scheduled sometime this month.

Silva said the recent rise in eviction notices is a direct result of the moratorium’s expiration and added that some landlords have been brazen while trying to evict renters that have been hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and do not understand their rights.

“Landlords are saying things like ‘you need to be out tomorrow,’ or ‘you need to be out at the end of the month,’” Silva said. “None of that is legal in the best-case scenario, let alone in the moratorium… some of our clients, sadly, say, ‘OK, fine, I’ll just go.’ When they don’t have to, and there is nowhere to go.”

Silva said she refers those displaced renters to nonprofits such as Community Bridges, Families In Transition and the Community Action Board (CAB) of Santa Cruz County.

CAB spearheaded the city’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program, which distributed $85,000 of federal funds from the city’s Community Development Block Grant to help Watsonville renters. The assistance was in high demand and was quickly claimed by 66 local families negatively affected by the pandemic and ongoing shutdowns, according to City Manager Matt Huffaker.

It is unknown if additional assistance will be provided by the federal, state or city government.

Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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