By Janice Bressler and Thomas K. Pendergast
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom signed protections for tenants during the pandemic, San Francisco courts have resumed other eviction cases in spite of protests by westside housing advocates who say this is not the time to increase homelessness.
On Sept. 21, activists from the West Side Tenants Association (WSTA), the Veritas Tenants Association and the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF) joined tenants facing uncertain times to call on the City to halt all evictions during the COVID-19 crisis.
Dana Huffstutler (left) of the West Side Tenants Association and Cynthia Fong of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco protest evictions in front of the courthouse at 400 McAllister St. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.
“During a global pandemic it is never more obvious that housing is health care, and to put people on the streets – to kick people out of their homes when we are supposed to be in our homes – is morally unjust,” Dana Huffstutler, a tenant organizer with the West Side Tenants Association, said.
In front of the court building at 400 McAllister St., dozens of protesters and a brass band rallied with signs, music and slogan chants calling for an immediate halt to all evictions, regardless of the cause.
“I have been unable to pay rent since April, and I currently owe over $14,000,” Jasper Wilde, a six-year Richmond District resident, told the crowd at the protest. “The pressure from my landlord to pay is a reminder that I am not seen as someone going through a difficult financial time but as a source of revenue from which to extract profits.
“There are federal, state and city measures, but they cover only certain renters and are very temporary, and all the money is still owed. For someone who has lost their job, it simply isn’t enough,” Wilde added. “Every eviction is a public health crisis. But it is especially a public health crisis during a deadly pandemic. We are calling on Mayor Breed to immediately put a stop to all evictions!”
Calls and messages to the mayor’s office for a response were not returned by press time.
“Historically, westside tenants are not the ones to lead rallies downtown, but tenants everywhere are impacted by housing instability,” Joy Lee, an organizer with HRCSF said. “This is not the time to move forward with evictions. This is the time to invest in our communities, not (to) tear us apart.”
Sunset District resident Rachael Lopshire said she lost her job due to the pandemic and lives with her landlord.
“By May I was completely tapped out,” Lopshire said. “I haven’t paid (rent) since. The harassment from co-tenants has gotten so bad that I am in contact with Bay Area Mediation Services. It’s hard to live with somebody who’s passive aggressive, talks terrible about your name and you’re not doing anything wrong. You just don’t have any money. This week she took the silverware out of the kitchen, broke the microwave, pretty much saying if I’m not paying rent I don’t get access to the kitchen.”
State measure AB-3088, which was signed into law by Newsom at the end of August, currently offers some protections for tenants who can show that their nonpayment of rent is related to COVID-19. Under AB-3088, renters who can show financial hardship due to COVID-19 in a sworn written declaration cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent this year from March through Sept. 1. For rent due between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, 2021, AB-3088 requires that tenants pay at least 25% of their rent due.
The relief provided under the state measure is not rent forgiveness. Tenants unable to pay their full rent during 2020 will still owe all unpaid rent. On March 1, 2021, landlords can begin a debt collection process based on all unpaid rent.
As an additional protection, however, AB-3088 provides that the debt is converted into civil debt and landlords cannot evict tenants based on the unpaid rent.
“The state law still leaves far too many renters vulnerable to losing their housing during the pandemic,” Lee said. She stressed that many evictions are not even addressed by AB-3088, including Ellis Act evictions, owner move-ins and temporary evictions based on a landlord’s property improvements.
According to the WSTA, San Francisco Rent Board data show that between 2010 and 2019, the Richmond District has had 126 Ellis Act evictions and 308 owner move-in evictions.
Assemblymember Phil Ting, who represents the west side of San Francisco in the State Assembly in Sacramento, said that while he supported AB-3088, it is only a stopgap measure.
“I supported AB-3088 to keep families in their homes during the pandemic,” Ting said. “This bill was the best compromise we could craft, considering it needed backing from two-thirds of lawmakers in order for it to take effect immediately.”
Without the state measure, Ting said, “a wave of evictions would have started as soon as the court moratorium on these proceedings expired on Sept. 1.” He added that more federal and state action is needed to provide comprehensive protections to prevent homelessness during the pandemic.
“I realize many Californians are at risk for homelessness,” he said. “And we must do more for not only tenants, but also small landlords struggling without rent payments.”
There is also a federal order, issued in early August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which provides temporary protection to certain tenants for failure to pay rent due to COVID-19 financial hardship. To be eligible for protection under the CDC order, tenants must be able to show that they expect to earn no more than $99,000 in 2020 ($198,000 for couples filing jointly), and provide a sworn statement declaring that they have suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19 and are likely to become homeless if evicted. Tenants seeking protection under the federal order must also show that they “used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing.”
The CDC order expires on Dec. 31. From that date on, all back due rent must be paid. Unlike AB-3088, the CDC order does not convert the unpaid rent into civil debt, so when the order expires, it permits landlords to evict tenants based on unpaid rent.
Juana Tello of Solidarity Forever Collective said that even though she has a master’s degree in Public Health, at one point she still found herself homeless.
“One of the biggest eye-opening things is that I was houseless myself as a teacher and teaching houseless students at San Francisco State who would sleep in their cars off Junipero Serra (Blvd.),” Tello said. “That is inhumane! Inhumane for families to have to navigate homelessness while thousands of units lay empty, and this city prioritizes luxury housing over affordable housing.”
Follow this link for a video report on the protest: