What if They Held a Pandemic (And A Rent Strike Broke Out Instead?) 

Prepare for a May Day like no other.

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Owners of rental property also weighed in. "I depend on rental income for financial survival," a retired townhouse owner wrote. Another said that he owned a six-unit building on the street where he lives, describing his tenants as neighbors and friends. "I saved a long time to buy this building for my retirement," he wrote. "With that and Social Security I live OK." But a rent moratorium would cause "stress and hardship. My retirement income and future would be severely affected."

Representatives of property owners' organizations spoke against the measures, though not all owners opposed the eviction moratorium. One wrote asking the supervisors to "strike a balance" between the needs of landlords and tenants, suggesting that tenants be required to provide advance notice of nonpayment, to provide proof that they couldn't pay, and to make partial payments if possible.

The greatest controversies have focused on the length of the "grace period" tenants would have to pay the back rent. Contra Costa Supervisor Candace Anderson expressed concern about asking landlords to go without rent for four months — the grace period in that county's ordinance. A speaker for an organization of parents, the East County Regional Group, said 120 days would not be long enough for people to pay back such a large debt and predicted "a wave of evictions" if the grace period were not extended. Supervisor John Gioia argued persistently, but unsuccessfully, to extend the grace period to 180 days. Meanwhile, the Alameda County measure gives tenants a full year to pay back rent.


Property Owners Seek Protection

Homeowners with mortgages — sometimes called "bank tenants" by housing-rights activists — have a different set of risks and protections. Almost two-thirds of homeowners with outstanding loans have federally backed mortgages, according to data from the Urban Institute, and are protected by federal rules banning foreclosures until mid-May. After that, such mortgage-holders who own homes from single-family to fourplexes can apply to their loan providers for suspension of mortgage payments for up to 180 days — with possibility of renewal — if they show they can't pay because of COVID-19.

In addition, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Citibank have announced that they will give owners of one to four housing units a 90-day grace period for mortgage payments with no evictions and no late fees. Bank of America offered 30 days. Wells Fargo spokesperson Tom Goyda said in an email that homeowners have to request this deferral from his bank by phone or online. After the three-month deferral, he said, the bank will negotiate on a case-by-case basis with homeowners.

But these federal and bank policies don't cover all small landlords. Oakland homeowner Debra Dooling-Sherman said she rents a small storefront and a studio apartment in her home, but her mortgage is owned by an individual who will not allow her to postpone payments. "A lot of people assume that if you are a landlord you must have money," she said. "But I'm barely making it every month." Dooling-Sherman is retired, and said the rent she collects "almost covers my mortgage and car payments. ... This is my retirement plan."

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, three-quarters of U. S. rental property is owned by "mom and pop landlords" with two to four units. And individuals and small businesses own more than 90 percent of rental housing, according to the US Census Bureau.

Larger landlords with federally backed loans also have some federal protections. If they agree not to evict tenants affected by the COVID-19 crisis, they too can apply to the federal mortgage-financing companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for suspension of mortgage payments for 30 days with two possible extensions. And the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide financial relief to mortgage-servicing firms if they go more than four months without being able to collect mortgage payments.

"The bottom line is that if renters are struggling to afford the rent, owners will similarly struggle to not only pay all of their employees, but meet their own mortgage obligations — putting their buildings at risk of foreclosure," Jim Lapides, vice president of strategic communications for the National Multifamily Housing Council, told the financial reporting website CityLab.

Nonetheless, officials and activists are focusing most of their efforts on tenants. "It's not that landlords can't collect rent, it's that tenants can't pay" said Leah Simon-Weisberg, lawyer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. "So what are we as a society going to do about it? Make everyone homeless?" Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison said that whatever challenges landlords face, tenants are the most vulnerable. "People who own buildings have an asset tenants don't have." Oakland tenant Terra Thomas, who's lost all income from her job as a florist for weddings, said she doesn't want to hurt small landlords, but she has little sympathy for her landlord, a corporation that bought 20 buildings in Oakland after 2008. "They might lose some of their profits. But it's the tenants that will be broken by this, that will come out of this without a job, be buried under mountains of debt, be evicted."

Though some tenant advocates are indifferent to the challenges faced by property owners, others are concerned about the threat to landlords from coronavirus-related income loss. Assemblymember Phil Ting (D, SF) has introduced a bill, AB 848, that would bar foreclosures on any residential real estate and suspend the sale of tax-defaulted property until fifteen days after California's state of emergency ends. It also would make the tenant eviction moratorium statewide. Most controversial is the provision that says if a court finds that a tenant can't pay rent because of the COVID-19 crisis, it must order that the tenant not be evicted for a year — and receive a 25 percent rent decrease. This bill would cover the period from fifteen days after the end of the state of emergency until January 1, 2022.

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