WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council on Tuesday voted to allow the city’s moratorium on evictions to expire at the end of the month, and instead defer to tenant protections put in place by California’s Judicial Council.
The local moratorium was approved by the council on March 23, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide ban on evictions days later. Newsom’s executive order allowing local governments to enact their own moratoriums and his statewide prohibition will also expire at the end of the month. But rules adopted by the state’s Judicial Council will effectively halt most eviction filings until 90 days after Newsom lifts the state of emergency related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those protections were enough to convince most members of the so-called Eviction Moratorium Housing Taskforce to not recommend the city pursue an extension. Instead, the task force suggested city leaders pursue and support state and federal funding and programs to help tenants, landlords and property owners and increase its outreach to educate residents of their rights.
The council also followed through on the task force’s recommendation to adopt the Safe At Home Guidelines for residential and commercial landlords through the end of August. Those guidelines encourage landlords to freeze rents, halt evictions, waive late fees, offer flexible repayment plans and help their tenants find government assistance, among other things. Tenants, meanwhile, are expected to continue to pay as much as they can if their income has been slashed due to the pandemic.
Mayor Rebecca Garica and Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada voted no. Both said the city’s most vulnerable renters would be put at risk without the moratorium.
“I know that the good landlords would follow the resolution that’s being proposed, but I’m really, really worried about those bad apples—and we’ve got some of them here in Watsonville,” Garcia said.
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 moratorium drew the ire of landlords throughout the city, many of which said they were caught off guard by the decision and were not consulted about how the move would affect their business. The city created the task force shortly after to deal with those concerns.
The members of the task force are:
Bill Hansen (Pacific Coast Development)
Raeid Farhat (Raeid Farhat Real Estate)
Lynette Sousa (Maciel Property Management)
Kathy Oliver (Oliver Property Management)
Ben Ow (Ow Family)
Ed Gagne (Bailey Properties)
Rick Danna (Bailey Properties)
Dana Sales (Century 21)
Victor Gomez (SCCAR)
Jane Barr (Eden Housing)
Luis Preciado (MidPen Housing)
Henry Martin (Watsonville Law Center)
Mia Murrietta (California Rural Legal Assistance)
Paz Padilla (Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County)
Melisa Vierra (Families in Transition)
Laura Owen (Bay Federal)
Diana Vargas (Wells Fargo)
The task force did not entirely agree that the eviction moratorium should be allowed to expire, and a few members of that group advocating for tenants were still in opposition during Tuesday’s meeting.
Sandra Silva, the directing attorney for CRLA’s Watsonville office, said the nonprofit legal service program was never invited to be a part of the task force, despite an employee being listed as one of the members.
“We were never part of any meetings or did not participate in any way as we were unaware the task force even existed,” Silva said.
Silva also said her office receives several calls per day from clients that say they are receiving notices from landlords that they must vacate the premises within three days.
“These people would be out on the street because they don’t understand the law and the moratorium,” she said.
Emily Ham, a Housing Association with Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, said that the economic fallout of the countywide shelter-in-place order and the growing rate of unemployment—roughly 26 percent in Watsonville—was still being determined. She called on the council to extend the moratorium through June when the city would likely have a better picture of its fiscal stability.
John Subranni, a staff lawyer at Watsonville Law Center, not only said the order should be extended but that it should be strengthened by giving tenants more time to give notice and documentation that they have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
He also said the city had the legal authority to extend its moratorium even if Newsom fails to extend the statewide ban. Large California cities such as San Jose and San Diego have extended their moratoriums and Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties have done the same.
Hansen challenged Subranni’s claim and said the city should follow through with the recommendations, which were based on numbers provided by local realtors, landlords and housing assistance programs.
Many landlords—both private and nonprofit—said at least 95 percent of their tenants were able to pay rent in April and May, and Watsonville’s Housing Director Carlos Landaverry said that there was only three known eviction notices served this month. But CAB, Landaverry said, did receive more than 170 applications for its emergency housing assistance program, 78 of which qualified for grants of up $1,500.
“Everybody that participated in the various Eviction Moratorium Task Force meetings had the opportunity to present the cases,” Hansen said. “How many people were affected? How many people were evicted? How many people were needing assistance? At the end of the day, I think the consensus of the group was that it was a very small amount.”
Property owners also argued an extension would impinge on their constitutional rights, and that the city should instead throw its 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.