The coronavirus pandemic has left many vulnerable as unemployment rates surge across the country. It’s also left tenants, some of whom already were struggling to pay rent, at risk for eviction without further protections.

Locally, San Mateo County offered some immediate relief to tenants, but experts say this short-lived assistance may leave people in debt or facing eviction in the near future.

A few weeks ago, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors extended a countywide emergency order that set a moratorium on evictions for residential renters. When the county first issued the moratorium in April, housing advocates reported confusion on the part of landlords and tenants.

“People’s awareness and understanding of how it works was a little muddled,” said Shirley Gibson, directing attorney with the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.

Gibson said the measure put off paying rent for a two- to three-month period, but it leaves tenants with a “balloon payment” of back-rent owed to the landlord.

“It’s not feasible to pay that in addition to staying current on rent,” she said. “It creates this weaponized debt. And with this economic downturn, it’s the most perilous.”

Nearly a quarter of respondents to a survey from the Census Bureau reported missing their last rent or mortgage payment and respondents had doubts about whether they would be able to pay on time next month. Unemployment is the problem for many; the state reports 15 percent of the workforce in California is without work.

After the emergency orders expire, tenants are given a brief period to repay the rent owed, otherwise there could be grounds for an eviction.

One alternative, housing advocates say, is turning rent debt into civil debt.

“What it means is you take it off the table for the grounds of eviction. Local jurisdictions do have the power to do it,” Gibson said.

Solano County and the city of Oakland both already have this written into their emergency measures. It enables the debt to be treated like any other kind of consumer debt.

Gibson said she is hopeful that San Mateo County officials will consider it as an option at an upcoming Board of Supervisors meeting.

“Eviction notices are a weapon of terror; it’s not a useful thing in any economic sense,” she said.

Statewide there has been little to no eviction activity, largely because the courts are not active due to the public health crisis.

“It’s just a delay in process, it does not mean people are protected from eviction,” Gibson said.

Since there is no clear end date for the state of emergency, tenants and landlords face an uncertain future. Nationally, experts predict increasing eviction activity, putting tenants at risk of losing permanent housing. Gibson said San Mateo County would be no exception.

“If the moratorium ends on the current schedule, there will certainly be a lot of termination notices. It will ramp right back up,” she said. “When the courts reopen there will be a pressure built up, and that is why people are talking about this ‘tsunami of evictions.’”

However, Gibson said she doesn’t think it will be business as usual when the courts reopen. She predicts that landlords will have to adapt to the reality of the market.

“The whole notion of turning over a tenancy to a wealthy tenant is evaporating,” she said.

Beyond asking jurisdictions to consider turning rent debt to civil debt, Gibson said the state and federal government should look to provide tax credits to landlords.

“I think landlords getting rental assistance directly is a smarter use of public funds,” she said.

The city of Mountain View, for example, has a Small Landlord Relief Program. It allows for eligible landlords to get up to $5,000 per month to cover costs if tenants cannot pay rent.

As tenants and landlords continue to navigate the way forward, Gibson said she encourages people to pay what they can to mitigate the debt.

“If you can give the landlord some money, it can help keep the peace,” she said.

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