Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
A movement to halt evictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic is spreading to more U.S. cities and states. Many are looking to stop utility shut-offs and foreclosures, too.
On Monday afternoon, the Bay Area became the first region in the U.S. to institute a shelter in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, barring visits to restaurants or bars or the hair salon, having friends over, and taking unnecessary public transit trips. The restriction made another recent San Francisco measure all-the-more urgent: keeping people housed while they deal with the cascading economic toll of such an emergency.
As other cities consider escalating their own lockdowns in the coming days, they are already following the lead of San Francisco by pursuing eviction freezes, foreclosure pauses, and utility shut-off deferrals. Over the past few days, the states of California and New York, and cities including Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Seattle, and Philadelphia have taken up a range of housing security strategies, hoping to avoid exacerbating the public health crisis posed by Covid-19 by pushing more people into homelessness. These efforts follow earlier measures in Singapore and Italy to stem homelessness during outbreaks there.
Across the U.S., The Guardian reports that almost 90 cities and states have stopped shutting off people’s water utilities, even if they can’t afford to pay their bills. Detroit is one of the few cities that has taken this measure a step further, restoring water access to tens of thousands of poor residents whose taps had previously been shut off due to debt.
The U.S. has not passed a blanket national moratorium (although the federal government has taken steps to suspend some government-backed evictions and foreclosures). But Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for federal lawmakers to prevent all evictions, foreclosures, and utility bill collections.
Because each jurisdiction handles housing policy differently, officials are pulling different levers to protect renters and homeowners alike: Penalizing landlords for kicking tenants out, telling their police and sheriff’s departments to stop enforcing pending or new eviction notices, and urging banks and utility companies to temporarily forgive non-payments. Several of the proposals recognize the financial burden of mass social isolation and business closures by tying the housing reprieves to documented coronavirus-related losses. Others take a blanket approach to protecting people from housing insecurity during a global pandemic.
“People shouldn’t lose or be forced out of their home because of the spread of COVID-19,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement, after he issued an executive order giving local governments the authority to impose their own moratoria. “Over the next few weeks, everyone will have to make sacrifices — but a place to live shouldn’t be one of them. I strongly encourage cities and counties take up this authority to protect Californians.”
Tenants’ rights organizations said that the measure was disappointing because it didn’t bar evictions outright at the state level. Meanwhile, in cities like San Jose and San Francisco, lawmakers have already taken up their authority, and are finalizing measures that freeze evictions for a set period of time. Both require affected tenants to demonstrate some kind of coronavirus-related loss. San Francisco, whose mayor London Breed enacted the eviction moratorium on March 13, is also working on more non-binding resolutions that would urge banks and utility companies to freeze foreclosures and utility debt.
In Los Angeles — where 63% of the city’s 4 million residents are renters, and a third of them pay half or more of their earned income on rent — Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive order to halt evictions for struggling tenants. Documented child-care, domestic-care, or health-care expenses could prove need, as well as work stoppages; and rent would be due six months after the state of emergency ends.
Some other cities whose constituents have pushed them to take action say they’re looking to their states or counties to act first, due to preemption measures or court powers. Even without issuing a legislative moratorium on landlord-initiated evictions, however, cities can direct (or urge) law enforcement to stand down and stop expelling people from their homes, or halt court proceedings already in motion.
In the Miami area, for example, an immediate halt on evictions came not from a proposal through city council, but directly from the police department: After Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez declared a state of emergency on March 11, the department announced it was temporarily suspending its own activities to enforce evictions “until further notice,” effectively halting tenants’ removals.
Law enforcement in Philadelphia, which ranks fourth in the nation for eviction filings, started collaborating with the city after Councilmember Helen Gym successfully lobbied the city’s sheriff and its courts to stop enforcing evictions, residential foreclosures, and tax liens on residential properties for at least the next two weeks. Just this week, more than 550 evictions were scheduled to be heard — as part of the emergency eviction pause, the courts also agreed to pause hearing those cases already in the pipeline.
During those two weeks, major gas, electric, and WiFi utilities won’t pursue shut-offs, either. “We know that one of the most dangerous things we can do at this time — when we’re telling people to stay at home or be in safe places — is to take away a roof over people’s heads, or turn off their water or electricity because they’re not allowed to work right now,” Gym told CityLab.
New York State is currently the area experiencing the largest number of coronavirus cases — more than 1,300 and climbing fast — and lawmakers there are attacking housing insecurity from all sides. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state disaster emergency, state legislators Brad Hoylman and Brian Kavanagh submitted legislation that would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants without a court order, and gives new powers to courts to stop evictions, foreclosures, and “adjust lease obligations.”
The state courts took their own decisive action over the weekend, issuing an indefinite end to eviction proceedings at the residential and commercial level, and a stall on all pending housing court orders across the state. This order extends New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own commitment to suspend evictions in the city for three months.
Oakland, too, is taking a two-pronged approach. Under pressure from housing activists last week, Oakland’s city council sent a letter asking the county to pause evictions until the council’s next meeting on April 7; the Superior Court agreed, stopping all court proceedings, including evictions, under the Bay Area’s shelter in place.
In the meantime, Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas also successfully called on the Alameda County Sheriff’s office to stop pursuing eviction enforcement. But she says a city-imposed moratorium is crucial. “I think it’s very important to look comprehensively,” Bas said. “Ensuring that eviction protections are strong, including moratoriums on evictions due to this pandemic; and ensuring that eviction proceedings that may already be in the works be halted, and that any court orders aren’t pursued.”
Even San Francisco’s original legislation — which paused evictions for unpaid rent — left gaps: San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston introduced another measure that would bar no-fault evictions, like owner move-ins or renovations, after landlords ejected a “medically disabled Mission resident,” using the state’s Ellis Act, Mission Local reported. (“[S]ome landlords seem to be lacking a heart or a brain or both,” Preston wrote on Twitter.) He’s also struggling to ensure that the San Francisco court system doesn’t proceed with eviction trials.
And although L.A. has ensured that the most precarious tenants are protected, Councilmember Mike Bonin told CityLab he’s planning to introduce a more sweeping suite of legislation at a future city council meeting. He’ll also ask for a freeze on evictions, but his legislation wouldn’t require any documentation of work disruption, and it would go through the city attorney.
For those who can document coronavirus economic impacts, he’s seeking another more specific mandate that forces all landlords and residential mortgage-holders to allow tenants and homeowners up to 24 months to fulfill their payment obligations.
And, to ensure that people won’t be stuck looking for housing amidst a downturn due to a poorly timed lease end date, Bonin says this draft of his legislation would require all residential landlords to extend expiring leases for three months after the emergency declaration is lifted.
“In this crisis we have to do everything that we possibly can — everything we know we can do. And we need to push the envelope of what that is,” he said. “One or two weeks of lost income is the difference between [some workers] living indoors and them living outdoors.”
Mom-and-pop landlords have expressed concerns that this new trend would have unintended consequences, pushing property owners behind on their own payments as they, too, grapple with the financial and health implications of the virus. In cities where eviction moratoriums are paired with foreclosure forgiveness, they have less to worry about. Cities like L.A. and Philadelphia are pursuing small business support funds. And San Francisco announced a moratorium on coronavirus-related evictions for small and medium businesses, a move permitted by California’s new executive order.
“If this goes on, we’re going to have to look at using city, state and federal money to help keep people whole,” said Bonin. “We’ve got tenants, we’ve got workers, we’ve got small businesses, we’ve got landlords — it just becomes a self-perpetuating and constantly repeating cycle of harm.”
To break out of this cycle, localities can’t be the only ones legislating on the ground, says Philadelphia’s Gym, who calls on President Donald Trump to adopt Sanders’ national housing relief directive and enact expanded paid leave, cash assistance, or a universal basic income on a temporary basis. “People are in crisis,” she said. “All of us need to make a broad-based appeal for state and federal relief that comes directly to states and large cities.”