Berkeley City Council votes on measure to strengthen eviction moratorium

Photo of apartments in Berkeley
Sunny Shen/File
The current city moratorium lightly penalizes property owners who institute late fees, lock out tenants or threaten renters. The City Council voted on a stricter moratorium that, if passed, would strengthen renters’ protections from eviction during the pandemic. 

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About two million California residents were behind on rent payments in August, a UC Berkeley study by campus professor Carolina Reid estimated.

The study was conducted using Household Pulse survey data, which found that 600,000 households were behind on rent, according to Reid. She added that to support those at risk for eviction from not paying rent, more needs to be done in addition to the eviction moratorium.

“Ultimately we need the federal government to step in with direct support to households who have lost jobs due to COVID,” Reid said in an email. 

Berkeley Tenants Union secretary Matthew Lewis said the City Council voted Tuesday on an eviction moratorium that would strengthen renters’ protections from eviction during the pandemic. 

The measure would halt Ellis Act evictions, which are intended to be used when a property owner wants to take a rental unit off the market, according to Lewis. He added that the act is “abused” and sometimes used to evict tenants for other reasons.

“Currently, landlords can only evict you for health and safety or the Ellis Act,” Lewis said. “We’re seeing that being used by landlords to evict for some other reasons, such as nonpayment of rent. There are various COVID-19 related reasons for not making rent.”

The current city moratorium has “weak” penalties for property owners who institute late fees, lock out tenants or threaten renters, according to Lewis. He said crucial parts of the measure, such as amendments to include renters’ rights on eviction notices, were removed Nov. 17.

If the stricter moratorium passes, it would not take effect until February due to restrictions in a statewide moratorium that prevents property owners from taking tenants to court, according to Lewis.

Lewis added that the city measure would not apply to UC Berkeley housing, such as residence halls and University Village in Albany, because they are state-run entities.

“This doesn’t help students in dorms,” Lewis said. “So the city can’t do much to protect students, but the state government and federal government can.”

Lewis said he hopes Reid’s research will galvanize the state government to strengthen laws protecting tenant rights. 

Matt Brown, acting executive director for Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, said only one building in Berkeley has initiated Ellis Act eviction proceedings during the pandemic. He added that the paperwork was not filled out correctly, and no other cases of eviction have been brought to the rent board.

“Berkeley City Council has done a really good job at adapting and drafting policy for protecting folks at risk of displacement,” Brown said. “They’ve been very responsible, but the social safety net cannot protect everyone, but they’re doing the best to protect the most vulnerable.”

Contact Leon Chen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @leonwchen.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Matthew Lewis is a member of the Berkeley Tenants’ Union. In fact, he is the secretary.