‘A saving grace’: Berkeley City Council passes amendment allowing tenants to end leases due to COVID-19

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Heather Feibleman/File

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Amid uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkeley City Council passed an amendment to the city’s municipal code Tuesday, seeking to provide clarity with its latest urgency ordinance regarding tenants’ ability to end a lease.

City Council passed a new section of the municipal code in April, intended to protect tenants in Berkeley from “exploitative lease terms,” including exit fees that could arise if they attempt to terminate their lease before its expiration. According to Council member and author of the amendment Kate Harrison, the April ordinance was misinterpreted by some. It was not meant to hinder preexisting early termination options between tenant and landlord, even if they involve a fee, Harrison said.

In part to correct the confusion, City Council passed an amendment to the section of municipal code Tuesday.

“We had one property management company that was saying that, ‘Oh look, they just said we can’t charge a fee, so the thing we agreed to do is not valid,’ ” Harrison said. “That is clearly not true, so we wanted to clarify that.”

In addition to that clarification, the new urgency ordinance amended the COVID-19 Emergency Ordinance, which will remain in effect until the end of the local state of emergency.

The change allows tenants to terminate their leases with 30 days’ notice if they qualify under “Covered Reasons for Delayed Payment,” which include material loss of income, or if they “are or were registered at an educational institution that cancelled or limited in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the item’s cover memo.

According to outgoing ASUC Senator Romario Conrado, this ordinance is “a saving grace” for many students.

“It helps students who signed leases with the original confidence that fall would be in-person or a hybrid model,” Conrado said in an email. “For example, someone reached out to me that they were stuck in a 50k annual lease that only they signed for 5 other roommates.”

Though the ordinance is specific to Berkeley, Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who co-authored the ordinance, added that state law limits the scope of relief that City Council can provide.

“The Berkeley City Attorney’s office has indicated that even if students terminate their leases under the recent Berkeley emergency ordinance, the landlord still has the right to pursue unpaid/lost rent over the duration of the lease term under state law,” states a document created by UC Berkeley Attorney for Students Mark Lucia.

The document does note, however, that tenants whose leases have not started may be able to terminate “without paying any fee or having further liability.” Further confirmation will be provided by the city attorney early next week, Robinson added.

For now, both Harrison and Robinson suggested that tenants reach out to the Eviction Defense Center and UC Berkeley Student Legal Services for guidance, as each lease agreement is different and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.