State of emergency for fires gives unexpected relief to California tenants

Photo: Schluesseldienst/Pixabay
By Sasha Perigo - Published on October 29, 2019.

With catastrophic fires affecting 43 counties across the state, California is officially in a state of emergency, as declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday.

But in an unexpected twist, the legislation is also protecting another group in crisis — California renters who are facing eviction from landlords wary of a new housing law. 

On Oct. 8, Newsom signed AB 1482, a sweeping rent cap bill, into law. AB 1482 forbids landlords from raising tenants' rents more than 5% plus inflation annually, and from evicting tenants without "just cause."

The bill is set to take effect in January. But in the three weeks since Newsom signed it, tenants groups say they've seen a noticeable uptick in eviction notices, as landlords attempt to evict tenants before the end of the year.

Luckily for tenants, California's freshly declared state of emergency comes with unique prohibitions on price-gouging for essential services like food, gas — and housing.

Under California Penal Code 396(f), landlords are forbidden from evicting a current tenant in order to rent to a new tenant at more than a 10% rent increase while the state of emergency is in effect — which will be until at least Nov. 25, and could be even longer if Newsom extends it with additional 30-day increments. 

According to a statement released by the California Attorney General’s office, landlords who violate the prohibition could be subject to a year of jail time and/or a $10,000 fine.

The state of emergency won’t help all tenants facing eviction between now and January. Those who were served eviction notices before the state of emergency was announced on Saturday are not covered; their evictions can still move forward.

But it could help additional tenants avoid displacement before the new law goes into effect, said Deepa Varma of the San Francisco Tenants Union.

“We hope that a stay on evictions will help tenants around the state," Varma said. "Though it depends on what kinds of enforcement is available for these tenants."

Photo: San Francisco Tenants Union/Facebook

While tenant activists say they're grateful for the temporary hiatus, some are wondering why tenants have to rely on a fire-related state of emergency for eviction protection, instead of a statewide moratorium on no-fault evictions until the rent cap goes into effect. 

As San Francisco activist @jpoliticssf asked Monday on Twitter, “Wait, the governor can just do this whenever he wants, by fiat? What took so long?” (Newsom's office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)

With no action on the state level, tenants' organizations across the state are pushing for local moratoriums on evictions until the rent cap goes into effect in January. Some cities and counties have already taken action.

Last week, Los Angeles County was the first municipality to pass a complete moratorium on all “no-fault” evictions until AB 1482 takes effect. In the Bay Area, Redwood City and Daly City passed similar policies unanimously at their city council meetings on Monday evening.

Supporters of the effort can sign a petition from Tenants Together, asking Newsom for a complete moratorium on evictions between now and January.

San Francisco tenants whose landlords are violating the temporary stay on evictions are encouraged to visit Tenants Union during their housing counseling hours, or to contact the Housing Rights Committee.

Tenants outside of San Francisco can contact Tenants Together's hotline for assistance. 

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