COVID-19, California Eviction Bans and Tenant Protections

In response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, on 3/4/20, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a California-wide state of emergency, which (among other price controls) automatically placed a cap on rent increases (see below).

Because of the extraordinary economic impacts of COVID-19, on 3/17/20 Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 specifically authorizing local governments to freeze evictions on tenants affected by COVID-19. As a result, over 70 counties and cities quickly enacted a patchwork of local commercial and/or residential "eviction moratoriums".

To maintain consistency across California and to support shelter-in-place orders, on 3/27/20 Governor Newsom issued a statewide residential eviction moratorium (Executive Order N-37-20) on tenants affected by COVID-19. The statewide moratorium runs through 5/31/20, providing protection for eligible residential tenants when rent is due on April 1.

What Is a “State of Emergency?”

A state of emergency is an official declaration suspending normal governmental and constitutional procedures in response to an earthquake, flood, fire, riot, storm, drought, infestation, disease, or other natural or human-made disaster. Depending on the size of the disaster, the president, governor, or local city or county governing official can make the declaration. The declaration typically remains effective for 30 days and may be extended for additional 30-day periods as necessary.

Excessive Rent Increases are Prohibited Statewide

Once a state of emergency is declared, California Penal Code § 396 prohibits “excessive and unjustified increases” on a range of basic goods and services. Barring justification, an excessive increase is an increase of more than 10 percent above the price charged by the person in question for the same goods or services immediately before the declaration of emergency. (Cal. Penal Code § 396(a).) You can read how a state of emergency applies to general goods and services here.

In 2017, special rules for landlords were added after California wildfires destroyed a significant number of homes and rental units. Following a declaration of emergency (including Newsom's March 4 COVID-19 declaration) , a landlord can’t increase the rent more than 10% from the unit’s pre-disaster “base rental price,” which varies depending on the lease and whether the unit was previously vacant.

Landlords also can’t evict tenants (unless the eviction was already underway) and then re-rent or offer to rent to new tenants for more than the evicted tenant could be charged. These rules include spaces in mobile home parks and campgrounds. (Cal. Penal Code § 396(j)(11)(A-D).)

How to Fight Excessive Rent Increases

A violation of California Penal Code § 396 is a misdemeanor (punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, up to a year in jail, or both). California's Attorney General and local district attorneys enforce the statute. Governer Newsom's emergency declaration means the price gouging law applies anywhere in California where consumer demand increases as a result of an emergency.

If you are subject to an excessive rent increase you can file a complaint with your local district attorney's office or with the Attorney General. An online form is available on the California Attorney General's website.

Statewide Eviction Moratorium or "Freeze".

Governor Newsom's Executive Order N-37-20 prohibits landlords from evicting residential tenants for nonpayment of rent when the inability to pay is due to COVID-19.

The tenant must have paid rent prior to 3/27/20 pursuant to an existing agreement, and must notify the landlord in writing within seven days after the rent is due that the tenant "needs to delay" all or a portion of the rent due for reasons "related to COVID-19," including:
  • The tenant was/is unable to work while sick or caring for a household member with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
  • The tenant suffered a reduction of income (layoff, loss of hours) because of "...COVID-19, the state of emergency, or related government response".
  • The tenant missed work " care for a child whose school was closed in response to COVID-19".
The tenant must still pay any amount of rent possible, and remains responsible for the accruing back-rent. The tenant must also retain "...verifiable documentation (pay stubs, bank statements, etc.,)... of an inability to pay," which must be provided to the landlord " later than the time upon payment of back due rent". However, the order does not designate a specific date or time period for repayment.
NOTE: Assembly Member Phil Ting and other California lawmakers are drafting statewide emergency moratoriums on residential evictions & foreclosures but no bills can be introduced until the Legislature returns from recess in mid-April.

Local States of Emergency/Freezes, and Commercial Tenants.

Although the statewide eviction moratorium (Executive Order N-37-20) applies everywhere in California, it applies only to residential tenants. Local governments have already enacted various eviction moratoriums covering both residential and commercial tenants. If a local moratorium provides greater protections-or protections for commercial tenants-the local moratorium applies. The local ordinance chart below is updated frequently, but if your city or county is not listed check your local government web pages for the most recent information.

How to Enforce an Eviction Moratorium

If you qualify for the statewide or local eviction moratorium in place-and if you qualify-don't assume you are automatically protected. In almost all cases you must notify your landlord, provide documentation, and possibly assert that moratorium as an affirmative defense to an eviction action. You should immediately contact an attorney or local tenant's rights organization.

(Updated 3/31/20)

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