By Elizabeth Balmin and Brian Gonsalves
We all know that local tenants face the loss of housing when landlords take rental properties off the market or increase rents, but not everyone knows the rules that apply when this happens.
The business of residential renting by owners of real properties is highly regulated. Public policy also demands that tenants, who are in many ways the more vulnerable parties in landlord-tenant relationships, have the benefit of protections. At the same time, landlords have a significant investment in their properties and often need the rental income to pay their mortgages and other expenses. Landlord-tenant laws are intended to strike a balance between the landlords receiving the benefit of their investment, and the tenants being treated fairly and avoiding unnecessary homelessness. These laws, however, are often more complicated than one might expect, which can lead to uncomfortable conflict between owners and renters.
California’s Tenant Protection Act of 2019 radically changed the long-established standards for landlord-tenant relationships, and imposed numerous new requirements. The Covid-19 Tenant Relief Act and the Covid-19 Rental Housing Recovery Act further complicated the applicable laws. Tenants, landlords, and even experienced real estate attorneys were left scrambling to keep up with the changing laws. Moreover, courts have not yet had the opportunity to interpret the new provisions of these laws that have proven to be more ambiguous in practice than what the legislature may have anticipated. Nonetheless, here are a few key issues that everyone should know.
1. Does the Tenant Protection Act apply?
The Tenant Protection Act provides numerous new protections and requirements for both landlords and tenants on rent control and “no-fault termination.” But before either side should delve into a discussion of its various provisions, the question should be asked first as to whether the protection act applies to that particular landlord-tenant relationship. For example, the TPA typically does not apply to tenancies that are less than one year or to single-family homes owned by an individual. It’s designed to add tenant protections to multifamily residences and LLCs, not “mom and pop” landlords.
2. If the TPA applies, what does that mean to me?
While a non-TPA month-to-month lease can be terminated with proper notice, TPA rentals can only be terminated when there is breach of the lease, such as non-payment of rent or one of four “good-cause” reasons: owner or their relative moves in; owner takes unit off the market, such as to use it as a vacation home; renter is ordered to vacate from a government agency; or the unit needs major repairs requiring a permit. In these good-cause cases, the landlord must provide a month’s rent as a relocation benefit, and 60 days’ notice. TPA also provides rent control-type provisions for areas in California, such as the Tahoe Basin, that did not previously have them, limiting the amount and frequency of rent increases to 10% annual maximum.
3. Are the courts processing evictions now?
The courts, like many other businesses and government agencies, experienced shutdowns and delays during Covid. Now that the courts are open, many courts throughout the state are still working through a significant backlog of cases. Locally, the Nevada County and Placer County courts have made great strides in re-opening and remaining accessible to the public. So, the short answer is yes, our local courts are currently processing evictions.
4. Under the new Covid laws, can a tenant be evicted for non-payment of rent?
A tenant can be evicted for non-payment of rent with some exceptions, provided that the proper procedures have been followed, and depending on the time period for which the rent is owed, unless there are adequate defenses. Clear as mud, right? Landlords often think it a foregone conclusion that if the rent is not paid, then the tenant can be immediately evicted, but there are exceptions to this. And importantly, evictions are never immediate. Tenants can always request a court process that takes at least 23 days, in which they can state defenses and ask for a further hardship extension. On the other hand, many tenants believe that the protections of the Covid-related tenant acts will absolutely prevent an eviction if the inability to pay has arisen from a Covid-related cause, and likewise there are exceptions to this. Some of the protections previously provided under the Covid acts have expired, but others are still in place. Tenants who have unpaid rent from March 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, may be protected by Covid rules, but more recent back rent is protected without an approved California rent-relief application.
~ Elizabeth Balmin is the director of Legal Assistance, Crisis Intervention, and Family Advocacy at Sierra Community House. Brian Gonsalves is the managing attorney. Sierra community House is a local nonprofit agency that provides services to community members, including legal aid, crisis intervention by domestic violence and sexual assault counselors, general family support, and hunger relief. Sierra Community House was formed in 2019, consolidating two former family resource centers, the former Tahoe Safe Alliance, and the former Project Mana. Its legal aid program provides self-help support, conflict resolution, and court preparation in landlord-tenant, family law, employment, and other civil matters.