Tenant activists and some lawmakers are fighting to prevent California’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium from expiring June 30 as scheduled.

The California Apartment Association is evaluating the need for any extension and demanding several problems with SB 91 be fixed if it is to remain in effect.

California rental housing providers have operated under a series of eviction moratoriums since the pandemic shut down the economy 14 months ago.

Changing dynamics

Pressure to extend SB 91 comes amid several changing dynamics surrounding the virus and the state’s economy. With mass vaccinations underway, California has the virus on its heels and plans to fully reopen the economy on June 15, two weeks before SB 91’s scheduled expiration. The moratorium largely aimed to prevent the spread of the virus by allowing COVID-impacted tenants to stay housed and shelter in place. California is no longer in a lock down.

When Gov. Newsom signed SB 91 into law in January 2021, the legislation had two main objectives — to prevent evictions following a renewed surge of COVID infections and deaths, a trend that has since reversed, and to create a framework to distribute federal rental assistance dollars to rental housing providers, many of whom had provided housing for months on end with little to no compensation.

Financial assistance under SB 91

Under the financial assistance element of SB 91, the state is using federal funds to pay housing providers 80% of a qualifying tenant’s back rent accumulated between April 1 of last year and March 31, 2021. A landlord who has accepted the money had to forgive the remaining unpaid rent for that period. Housing providers who have refused to participate have still been eligible to receive 25% of rental arrears if the tenant applied successfully for aid.

To qualify for the federal dollars, the unpaid rent must be owed by a tenant who earned less than 80% of the area median income in 2020 or at the time of application. The state has first prioritized dollars for lower-income tenants — those earning up to 50% of AMI.

Eviction protections under SB 91

To qualify for eviction protections under SB 91, tenants had to claim a COVID hardship by signing and returning a declaration. High-income tenants, those making 130% of the area median income, had to provide documentation of their COVID-related hardship. If by June 30 a tenant pays at least 25% of the rent owed since September of last year, that tenant remains permanently protected against eviction for non-payment of rent where the arrears are attributable to COVID-19, although landlords can still take them to court to collect that debt. Tenants can use federal rental assistance to cover the 25% of rent owed, securing the permanent benefits of SB 91, even after the bill’s expiration.

Now, more federal rental assistance is coming to California, and Newsom this month announced his intent to pay rental housing providers 100% of the rent owed by tenants who qualify for COVID-19 rental assistance — up from the prior 80%.

What’s ahead

In the coming weeks, California lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation for the disbursement of newly announced federal rental assistance funding. It is possible that legislators will attempt to combine the distribution of additional rent relief with an extension of SB 91.

If SB 91 is to continue, CAA is demanding important changes. The association, for example, argues that SB 91 should authorize rental housing providers to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent if they fail to cooperate in applying for state and local funding. The legislation also must ensure payment of rental assistance for renters who currently do not qualify — those making more than 80% of the area median income. CAA also wants a more stringent process for tenants to show a COVID hardship before qualifying for eviction protections.

Tenant activists, meanwhile, are pushing for a renewed SB 91 to apply Fair Debt Collection Law to rental debt to ensure that their failure to pay the rent is not used against them when applying for future housing. They also want to make permanent the extended 15-day notice requirement for nonpayment of rent.

Legislation to extend SB 91 could come at any time. CAA is engaged with lawmakers and the governor’s office on this matter. Stay tuned for updates.