Berkeley City Council must fully protect tenants during COVID-19 pandemic.

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December 8, 2020

By: Matthew Lewis, Berkeley Tenants Union; Paola Laverde, Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board; Peter Selawsky, Eviction Defense Center

On Dec. 8 at 4 p.m., Berkeley City Council will vote on strengthening protections for tenants and homeowners during the ongoing pandemic. This is a welcome development, but in order to truly protect Berkeleyans, the City Council must include all the common-sense protections advocated by stakeholders.

Stakeholders such as the Berkeley Tenants Union, East Bay Community Law Center and Eviction Defense Center have spent months working to strengthen the city’s law suspending evictions and delaying rent during the pandemic. On Oct. 28, the 4×4 Committee on Housing — composed of four council members and four rent board commissioners – unanimously approved a suite of crucial amendments to protect tenants and homeowners from eviction and financial ruin.

Among other changes, these amendments would suspend Ellis Act evictions — when an owner ostensibly intends to withdraw a unit from the rental market — and require any eviction notice to inform the resident of their rights and the significant limits on evictions during the pandemic. Many residents are understandably confused over the various laws regulating evictions and rent during the pandemic, so it’s crucial that they are made aware.

The amendments would also add additional situations in which tenants financially affected by COVID-19 may delay rent as well as provide real penalties for landlords and banks who violate the ordinance. Following the 4×4 Committee meeting, a few changes, such as explicitly prohibiting additional forms of retaliation, were made at the request of tenants’ rights attorneys to close potential loopholes in the law.

All of the amendments are crucial to keeping Berkeleyans in their homes, stopping the spread of COVID-19 and letting us rebuild the economy after the pandemic. If they fail to include any of these provisions — or otherwise water down the proposed amendments — then the City Council members will leave tenants and homeowners at risk of financial ruin, abuse by landlords and banks and even death. This is not an exaggeration; just from the beginning of the pandemic through September, evictions in the United States caused 433,700 coronavirus infections and 10,700 deaths.

Landlords are currently only allowed to evict tenants in Berkeley for threats to health and safety or through the Ellis Act. Even before COVID-19, landlords would threaten tenants with Ellis Act evictions without actually intending to remove a unit from the rental market. This can lead tenants to “self-evict,” creating a giant loophole for landlords to essentially ignore the law. Once long-term rent-controlled tenants leave, landlords can significantly raise the rent.

Numerous jurisdictions, including the city of Los Angeles, have recognized this loophole and banned Ellis Act evictions during the pandemic. Berkeley must join them.

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