First came the medical emergency, followed quickly by an economic downfall, with a rental crisis looming for tenants and landlords only shortly behind on its heels.
California’s judicial council passed April 6 an eviction moratorium that precludes county, gubernatorial, and municipal action, so Tahoe/Truckee landlords alongside all others in the state have no right to evict based on failure to pay rent until 90 days after the stay-at-home order ends.
Yet many landlords in the region are asking tenants with leases up or who can’t pay to move out or start paying back rent, and the Town of Truckee itself has jumped into the mix with direct rent relief and a long-term plan.
There has been a huge upswing in need for rental assistance; in fact, local all-encompassing social services nonprofit Sierra Community House’s crisis hotline has received 150 calls in the past few months, when a typical month would see about 20 to 30 calls. Half of these pertained to rental assistance or questions about the layered eviction moratoriums and renters’ rights during the outbreak.
Cambridge, the company that manages many of Truckee’s affordable housing units, keeps track of the requests it’s getting for rental deferrals; in mid-April roughly 5% of people in those units were requesting rental deferrals, “and it’s jumped to 70% on May 15,” said Seana Doherty, housing program manager for the Town of Truckee.
And those estimated 75 calls to SCH? “We had more requests for rental assistance in April and May than we did all last year,” executive director Paul Bancroft told Moonshine in a recent interview. “It’s an odd snapshot in time.”
“This was exactly the timing right now where people shouldn’t be moving, exactly the time when the winter leases are up and the owners are wanting to come back and have their place back for the summer. It hit our community at a particularly tricky time,” echoed Mediation and Legal Assistance Program Director Elizabeth Balmin.
An example of that strange transition is a group of Argentine J1 visa holders who had used Airbnb, an STR platform that was outlawed for nonessentials and didn’t fall under the eviction moratorium, to find a place for the season. Their agreement through the platform was up, but Argentina’s border was closed, and the property owner had agreed to rent to essential workers. The Argentinians were stuck.
“These guys came to our community and they didn’t do anything wrong,” said Balmin, who was able to help negotiate a new place to live for the J1s until the border was opened. She lamented their position, where they “have to be either out on the streets or in some kind of legal battle with owners,” Balmin said.
A renter in the Tahoe area told Moonshine that after the stay-at-home order was issued, her next seasonal job, which would have required her to move to another region, was called off because it was deemed nonessential. The renter, who preferred not to be named for fear of retaliation or intimidation from her landlord so we’ll call her Anna, was faced with her lease being up as of June 1 and nowhere to go.
Over a two-month period before the end of her lease, Anna reached out to her landlord to try and figure out ways she could stay in the house. She says she attempted to contact him repeatedly, leaving nine voicemails, sending 24 unanswered texts, and on one given day called nine times in a row until he answered.
Anna contacted SCH, which Doherty refers to as the “go-to” for rental assistance in the region, even pre-COVID. At SCH, Anna connected with Balmin who explained that the statewide judicial moratorium gives her the right to stay.
“The next morning [my landlord] actually showed up at my house,” Anna told Moonshine. “He was really frustrated, [saying] ‘I thought we were okay,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve been trying to contact you for a couple months for help with housing, and keep getting ignored. But it turns out I actually have rights in this situation.’”
Anna asked him to leave as he was there unannounced and illegally, and the situation escalated further when, she claims, her landlord lied and said he spoke with Balmin who said Anna had no rights. Ultimately, with Balmin’s help, Anna was able to negotiate a cash-for-key agreement, meaning the owners (seven individuals who the tenant never spoke with directly) basically bought out her rights to remain and she still had to find a new place to live by the end of the month.
“I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” Anna said. “I’ve probably been in situations where I’ve given up my rights to my landlord. In this situation it was just too tough because I didn’t have any options … I’ll wake up in the middle of the night freaking out.”
She felt especially let down “because [the owners] want to use their second home instead of allowing someone one more month to live,” Anna said. “It hurts. They think, ‘we’re giving you money so you should be fine.’ It’s not about money, it’s about … me and my dog [having] somewhere to sleep at night.”
Balmin works in conjunction with Anibal Cordoba-Sosa, SCH’s director of family support and community engagement, who heads the emergency housing assistance program and whose team manages the hotline.
“The most typical situation right now is someone is experiencing a COVID-related loss of income,” Balmin said. “Rent is coming up due, and here we are in this unusual situation where a landlord actually cannot evict due to the failure-to-pay which is unprecedented.”
She explained that another caveat landlords need to be aware of is that public health is considered more important than lease violations, so eviction based on too many cars, pets not in the lease, etc. also are not currently lawful under the judicial council’s moratorium.
Yet interpretation on the ground is left up to landlords and tenants, and as June 1 hits, another wave of housing bills are coming due. It’s feeling like the edge of a cliff for tenants who can’t pay and landlords who still face mortgage payments and other expenses.
Patty Baird is a Truckee market-rate landlady who worked proactively and inclusively with her tenants. Baird, who owns and manages Cedar House Sport Hotel (the first lodging establishment in the area to shut down due to safety concerns on March 16), also rents out 27 of the 32 units of The Aspen apartments in Truckee.
“I will admit, when the [Truckee] moratorium first came out there was a thought like, ‘oh, are people going to take advantage of this?’ As a landlord you would think that,” but Baird and her husband Jeff reached out proactively to their tenants, offering support and assistance and informing them of each new step as well as their rights. With many restaurant industry tenants and others experiencing financial hardship, she expected numerous requests but only ended up providing partial deferment to two tenants.
Their strategy, Baird said, was to ask, “What do you need?” If they could only pay, say, $600 that month, she immediately deferred the rest to a time when they could make it work. Baird found that by informing and trusting her tenants, they did not take advantage as she initially feared.
SCH and Truckee team up
“When COVID hit, a lot of people moved from sort of being able to self-sustain themselves to needing help,” Doherty said. SCH was “the only game in town doing rental assistance” and by mid-April it was “backlogged, inundated.”
So the Town of Truckee and SCH decided to join forces, and in an April 28 council meeting the town voted to provide a rental assistance program to give away $50,000, launched at noon the next day. “By 4:30 p.m. on the 30th we shut it down because we ran out of funds,” Doherty said. “We had 80 apply and we were able to within a week send out 38 checks to households.”
The application was entirely online, in English and Spanish, and all applicants were considered on a first-come-first-served basis. She said applicants included many in the restaurant and other tourism-based industries, as well as hairdressers, smaller building contractors (who weren’t getting personal home jobs for fear of disease spread), and medical workers deemed nonessential.
Rental relief was particularly appealing to the town, Doherty said, because distributing rent checks to landlords or property managers through Truckee’s apparatus last month “built an internal muscle” for rent assistance. Statewide relief funds totalling $93,000 will soon arrive and must be distributed by the municipality itself (rather than SCH or any other partner group). Doherty estimates those funds will arrive in August or September, and is now in conversation with numerous funders to create a money pot to help in the interim, buying more time to plan.
With fundraising in the works for the next couple months and state assistance on the way for later summer, Doherty is also thinking six, eight months down the road for collaborative ways to provide rental assistance. Her aim is that residents not have to move, thus keeping them in the area.
“The goal with the [original May rental assistance] program was to provide immediate relief to a really wide set of the community who don’t normally go in for social-service-type assistance,” Doherty said, but she added that the lasting impacts of people whose income is affected by the pandemic will go on for a long time.
“It’s great that they’re starting to go back to work but they have less income and more rent,” she said, referring to those whose jobs were affected and they had to defer rent which will now be coming due.
Businesses in the mix
Of course, the rental crisis isn’t restricted to residential properties. In an economy propped up by visitor tourism with a large percentage of local businesses deemed nonessential, commercial renters are struggling to get by as business picks up very slowly after a long hiatus and today’s set of due bills loom for them as well.
One commercial tenant in downtown Truckee, who also fears retaliation by her property manager and prefers to remain anonymous, described the property management’s attitude as “bullying.” Late fees, business fees, and rent have all increased during the COVID-19 time period for this tenant and the others who rent in the building. The tenants could apply for rental aid assistance, provided they disclose detailed personal financial information.
“They say they’re in it with us, they really empathize, they sympathize with us, they’re just the messenger, but the reality is we’re expected to pay full rent for our two-month closure and they haven’t been really willing to work with us,” said the anonymous business owner, who has operated in the location for nine years. She provided sufficient proof of hardship — proving zero income for two months — in her application for rental assistance. In the end, she was approved for rent deferment, without any forgiveness.
This solution is, she said, “not very helpful, it’s like digging yourself out of a hole.” Another (also name-protected) business owner in the building, who chose not to apply so as not to disclose personal financial information, agreed: “It’s a nonsense relief,” she said, questioning why it would be required to prove hardship, “when we were all shut down. It’s obvious, it’s like asking if the sky is blue.”
Though, she further quipped, “They have no problem threatening late fees.”
A group of tenants including both unnamed women in the building wrote a joint letter asking for more lenient practices. They all received the same canned response focused on, according to the second woman, disbanding their attempts to team up.
For both residential and commercial renters, now struggling and seeing higher monthly rent in their future when they must begin to pay back deferments, the light at the end of the tunnel may not yet be visible.
“The need has just grown and it’s going to be here for a long time,” Truckee’s Doherty said.