By Natalie Orenstein
In March, the city of Oakland passed an ordinance banning most evictions during the pandemic. Tenant advocates have called it one of the strongest eviction moratoriums in the state.
But ever since the ordinance went into effect, there’s been widespread confusion about what the rules actually mean and who’s protected. To make matters more complicated, Alameda County has a separate but similar ordinance, and there are additional state rules dictating what cities can do.
With the virus causing mass layoffs and furloughs throughout the city, “folks are just generally concerned about being able to pay their rent,” said Cometria Cooper, supervisor for community engagement and enforcement at Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program. “Owners are concerned about making sure they’re getting their rent — sometimes it’s their primary source of income.”
Several local tenant advocacy groups have compiled a guide to Oakland’s moratorium, and the city has information online as well.
The Oaklandside spoke to some of these groups and to local residents, to learn what questions people have about the city’s current eviction rules. Then we sought answers from lawyers, organizers, and city and county staff. If you recognize yourself in any of these questions, we hope the responses help you out. And if you still have questions after reading, please email email@example.com or contact one of the legal resources listed below.
I lost my job because of the virus so I haven’t paid rent since April. Can I get evicted?
The short answer is no. Oakland and Alameda County have “eviction moratoriums” that prevent landlords from making tenants leave during the pandemic, even if they don’t pay their rent. Right now in Oakland, those rules are in place until August 31, but the City Council could decide to extend the moratorium for even longer.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Read on…
I know I can’t get evicted for not paying rent now, but what happens once the pandemic is over? Will I owe my landlord thousands of dollars?
Yes, you’re still on the hook for rent you couldn’t pay during the pandemic. But if you lost “substantial” income during the crisis—or had a significant increase in expenses—you can never be evicted for that unpaid rent in Oakland. Instead, your unpaid rent becomes a “consumer debt.” Your landlord could take you to court to demand the money, but they can’t kick you out of your home. Even though you can’t get evicted, there are risks to accruing that debt. If you receive a judgement against you in small claims court, that becomes a public record, which can “have all kinds of ramifications,” said Marc Janowitz, staff attorney and clinical supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center.
Oakland hasn’t set a deadline for when you have to pay back the rent you missed during the pandemic. However, Alameda County’s ordinance gives tenants 12 months to pay it back before landlords can go after them for the debt. If the county officially adopts its ordinance next week, no renters will be able to get evicted for old unpaid rent, even if they weren’t financially affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Back rent will become debt for everyone in the county after the year’s up.
My lease ended in May. Can my landlord evict me? Will I owe rent for June if I stay?
You can’t be evicted if your lease ends during the pandemic, but you still owe rent if you stick around. “The default is you’d basically have a month-to-month lease,” said Peter Selawsky of the Eviction Defense Center. Landlords can still carry out what’s called an Ellis Act eviction, though, meaning they can make you leave if they’re taking the building off the rental market altogether, by selling it, for example.