Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
For low-wage workers and cities, the real health emergency could be homelessness. So officials are advancing new proposals to temporarily halt evictions.
Neil Hutchinson, a 52-year-old stagehand based in Oakland, usually has a busy spring: The Game Developer’s Conference comes to San Francisco in March, Google’s Cloud Next conference comes in April, and Facebook’s big F8 conference comes to San Jose in May. In between, he gets calls to come help with smaller shows and events. As the conferences got canceled or postponed one by one on account of coronavirus concerns, Hutchinson got increasingly worried about paying rent on his apartment. In-person concerts dried up, too. By the end of the season, he expects to lose $10,000 in income.
“If this goes on longer than June, the outlook is pretty bleak,” he said.
For many people like Hutchinson, the low-grade fear of getting the Covid-19 virus has been compounded with an urgent sense of economic anxiety. Under the states of emergency being declared in an increasing number of localities, large events have been canceled, public transit has been less crowded, bar and restaurant workers are losing out on tips and entertainers have had shows closed. In expensive coastal cities, where people can pay more than 30% of their income on housing, missing even one paycheck can mean falling behind on rent. And falling behind can mean getting evicted.
To protect low-wage workers from these ripple effects, two California cities, San Francisco and San Jose, are advancing legislation that would put a moratorium on evictions for people whose wages have been affected by coronavirus-related closures and work stoppages. Other city measures are geared at providing housing for those who are already homeless in the event of a virus outbreak. Already, Singapore and Italy instituted policies to prevent new homelessness during their coronavirus outbreaks.
[See this more recent story for additional updates on city measures.]
“There are people who are going to lose income they may have otherwise earned,” said San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, who introduced an eviction moratorium bill on Tuesday. “We want to make sure that if they’re losing income in that situation, they’re not losing housing as well.”
At a time when many West Coast cities are already experiencing a homelessness crisis, the Covid-19 outbreak has put the significance of home into stark relief. People are being advised to stay inside their apartments and houses to prevent the spread of the virus. But for people who don’t have their own shelter — or who may lose it soon — that won’t be an option. Homelessness has already created a public health disaster in some American cities. The worry is that Covid-19 could only compound it.
“In this moment, there’s no reason to believe that homeless people are any more likely to get the coronavirus,” said Quiver Watts, the editor of Street Sheet, a publication on homelessness published by San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “But obviously, if it were to outbreak at a city level, folks we work with are susceptible.”
Covid-19 is more deadly for people over 60 years old, who have underlying health conditions or who are immuno-compromised already. Nationwide, about half of the unhoused people are older than 50, many of them falling into homelessness for the first time after that point. In tent encampments, people live far closer together than the six-foot radius researchers say Covid-19 can be transmitted over; in shelters, people sleep on the floor head-to-foot. People experiencing homelessness are less likely to have access to medical care, and more likely to have weakened immune systems.
San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo, whose city is home to more than 6,000 unhoused people, said in a press conference that his city’s legislation to keep people from being evicted was a move motivated in part to preserve “public health and public safety.”
On Tuesday, San Jose’s city council approved the measure, and San Francisco’s mayor committed to approving San Francisco’s, too. After the new eviction moratorium rules take effect in both cities, any renter who provides documentation — in the form of pay stubs, for example — that coronavirus-related issues have affected their ability to earn income will have the right to fight an eviction proceeding. The ordinance does not waive rent payments entirely; it just defers them, and prevents landlords from moving forward with unfair oustings. Under Preston’s plan, rent doesn’t need to be paid back until after the mayor-mandated state of the emergency has been lifted. Under Liccardo’s, the moratorium would last 30 days, with the option to extend it each month.
“The reality is a lot of landlords, especially folks who own rent-controlled units in San Francisco, are looking for ways in the law that they can evict long-term tenants who are low-rent,” said Preston. “And those are the folks who are most at risk here. We want to make it clear for these landlords that they can’t use this as an excuse [to evict.]”
California law is especially unforgiving when it comes to non-payment of rent, Preston said, allowing landlords to serve a three-day “pay or quit” notice. After the notice is posted, “if the tenant doesn’t pay in 3 days, the landlord can evict them, even if they come up with the money later,” Preston said.
In San Jose, the mayor’s decisive action was praised by tenants’ rights advocates. “Many of our clients are a minor emergency away from missing their next rent payment,” said Michael Trujillo, a housing-focused staff attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. Those at risk are disproportionately gig, contract and hourly workers, who are unable to work remotely or take sick leave, and for whom a canceled shift or contract can spell disaster.
Trujillo says there are ways the eviction moratoriums could be made even stronger, however. Under Liccardo’s current proposal, tenants would have to let their landlords know they’ll have trouble paying rent on or before the day it’s due, and provide full documentation of the virus-related work outage or closure. “In our experience, it can be really difficult for certain tenants — especially folks that are working in the gig economy and have informal sources of income — to secure some of that documentation,” Trujillo said. “The ideal solution would be an unconditional moratorium: disallowing any eviction for nonpayment of rent during the emergency.”
Councilmember Johnny Khamis told The Mercury News that San Jose’s fix could have negative ripple effects to other city workers: landlords. “I understand the mayor’s concerns, but we also don’t want people to lose their businesses, especially those mom-and-pop landlords, because their obligations to the banks aren’t going away,” Khamis told the paper.
In San Francisco, other resolutions that could protect landlords and renters alike — one preventing foreclosures and another deferring utilities payments — are being drafted, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Globally, similar efforts to protect renters are underway. In Singapore, government agencies took steps to stop the unfair expulsions of people who took state-ordered leaves of absence from work, underwent self-quarantine, or were being discriminated against based on race during the earlier days of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Landlords found to have irresponsibly evicted their residents may face restrictions and even be barred from renting out their flats to foreign work pass-holders in future,” read a joint press release by the ministries of National Development, Education, and Manpower.
And in Italy, where the entire country is under quarantine, the deputy economic minister said all mortgage payments will be suspended.
In Oregon, where governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency due to Covid-19 this week, Portland Tenants United (PTU) has started circulating a petition to ask officials to institute its own eviction pause. It’s been signed by 1,800 people, including Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
The group’s demands go further than the legislation proposed in San Francisco and San Jose, arguing that the state should bar all evictions for the duration of the crisis. Even if an eviction isn’t precipitated by coronavirus-related income loss, they write, landlords could put more families at risk of contracting it by leaving them out on the street.
“Filling eviction court full of poor, sick people is in no one’s best interest,” said Margot Black, PTU’s co-founder.
To protect those who are already homeless, Liccardo has suspended all homeless encampment sweeps in San Jose, a move the Coalition on Homelessness suggested San Francisco take, too. When people are woken up in the middle of the night and moved forcibly from their makeshift shelters, they can be separated from important medical equipment and lose sleep, which weakens their immune system more.
Officials in King County, Washington, where 22 coronavirus deaths have been reported, bought a motel and plan to house individuals who are sick or potentially infected and who can’t otherwise self-quarantine. And in addition to a $5 million cleaning and staffing effort, which is meant to keep homeless shelters and navigation centers regularly disinfected and running 24/7, San Francisco will make 30 RVs available as “isolation housing” specifically for any unhoused people who come down with the virus.
“The more people are sleeping outside, the greater risk they’ll be at for negative health incomes,” said the Coalition on Homelessness’s Watts. “Not only in moments of crisis but in general, everybody deserves a place they can stay.”
In places where such protections have not been proposed, anxieties remain high. In Buffalo, New York, Richard McGilvray has no sick leave or paid time off, and is about to move into a new apartment with his girlfriend, who’s pregnant with her first child. Coronavirus cases haven’t yet been documented in Buffalo, but fear is spreading faster. “I work in residential property management, and if I were to come down with the sickness, I'd be looking at 14 days with no paid time off,” he said in an email. “A two-week stint without pay could potentially ruin our financial stability — as both myself and my girlfriend are in positions where we cannot work from home.”
Because cities with populations over 1 million in New York are preempted from passing stronger legislation than the state on evictions, an eviction moratorium for New York City would have to come from Albany.
Three years ago, Hutchinson, the stage-hand, says he was evicted from his San Francisco home after a rent increase of more than 300 percent, and has been moving from lease to lease ever since. Since he lives in Oakland, this eviction moratorium won’t cover him.“The income inequality in this area, that’s a disaster in itself,” he said. “We could have used this a long time ago.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the scope of a New York State preemption law. New York City is preempted from passing stronger eviction laws than the state; smaller cities are not.