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

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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.

UC Berkeley’s transition to online classes has caused a drop in demand among students for housing in Berkeley. While this may benefit many tenants entering new rental agreements, it can be harmful to continuing tenants who were required to sign lease renewals before the shelter-in-place orders began. Not only are many unable to bargain for a rent reduction, but they also may not be able to find replacement tenants.

This leaves them with an unwinnable choice: Delay taking on new roommates while having to pay the full share of the rent until they find a replacement, or take on a higher share of the rent in order to immediately have a new roommate. 

In order to prevent judicial misinterpretation, the 4×4 Committee unanimously recommended amending the law to clarify that both such scenarios are covered reasons to delay rent. The proposal would also explicitly ban landlords from retaliating against tenants by refusing to rent them a different unit or giving them a worse lease than they would otherwise offer, encouraging other landlords to do so or causing harm to their credit rating.  It is crucial that the City Council explicitly ban these shameful tactics to ensure that landlords cannot continue to intimidate tenants from exercising their rights.  

The 4×4 Committee also voted to significantly strengthen the penalties in civil court and copy the county ordinance’s authorization of administrative fines and criminal prosecutions for landlords who violate the law. The weak existing penalties leave room for landlords who are fully aware of their obligations to violate the law. Considering that evictions are causing significant death nationwide, these enhanced penalties the committee recommended are more than fair.

Unfortunately, at the Nov. 17 City Council meeting, multiple council members directed the city attorney to water down the amendments, despite the unanimous vote of the 4×4 Committee. As a result, the newest version eliminates many crucial amendments, including the notice requirement, some of the clarity on delaying rent, multiple explicitly prohibited forms of retaliation, sufficient penalties for landlords and banks who violate the law and the suspension of Ellis Act evictions.

The City Council must add each of these crucial provisions back to the item and not further water down the amendments in any way. You can help us ensure the City Council protects tenants and homeowners by emailing the council by noon Dec. 8, as well as giving public comment during the meeting. If you’re unable to attend the meeting live, you can also email your public comment and it will be read aloud during the meeting. You can find instructions on how to take these actions, along with materials such as a sample letter, here.

With your help, we can protect Berkeley tenants and homeowners.

Matthew Lewis is the secretary of the Berkeley Tenants Union, Paola Laverde is the chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and a member of the Berkeley Tenants Union Steering Committee and Peter Selawsky is a litigation attorney at the Eviction Defense Center.