Both Oakland and Alameda County have eviction moratoriums that prevent landlords from evicting their tenants, even if they don't pay their rent. Credit: Pete Rosos

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In March, the city of Oakland passed an ordinance banning most evictions during the pandemic. Tenant advocates have called it one of the strongest eviction moratoriums in the state.

But ever since the ordinance went into effect, there’s been widespread confusion about what the rules actually mean and who’s protected. To make matters more complicated, Alameda County has a separate but similar ordinance, and there are additional state rules dictating what cities can do.

With the virus causing mass layoffs and furloughs throughout the city, “folks are just generally concerned about being able to pay their rent,” said Cometria Cooper, supervisor for community engagement and enforcement at Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program. “Owners are concerned about making sure they’re getting their rent — sometimes it’s their primary source of income.” 

Several local tenant advocacy groups have compiled a guide to Oakland’s moratorium, and the city has information online as well. 

The Oaklandside spoke to some of these groups and to local residents, to learn what questions people have about the city’s current eviction rules. Then we sought answers from lawyers, organizers, and city and county staff. If you recognize yourself in any of these questions, we hope the responses help you out. And if you still have questions after reading, please email natalie@oaklandside.org or contact one of the legal resources listed below. 

I lost my job because of the virus so I haven’t paid rent since April. Can I get evicted? 

The short answer is no. Oakland and Alameda County have “eviction moratoriums” that prevent landlords from making tenants leave during the pandemic, even if they don’t pay their rent. Right now in Oakland, those rules are in place until August 31, but the City Council could decide to extend the moratorium for even longer. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Read on…

I know I can’t get evicted for not paying rent now, but what happens once the pandemic is over? Will I owe my landlord thousands of dollars?

Yes, you’re still on the hook for rent you couldn’t pay during the pandemic. But if you lost “substantial” income during the crisis—or had a significant increase in expenses—you can never be evicted for that unpaid rent in Oakland. Instead, your unpaid rent becomes a “consumer debt.” Your landlord could take you to court to demand the money, but they can’t kick you out of your home. Even though you can’t get evicted, there are risks to accruing that debt. If you receive a judgement against you in small claims court, that becomes a public record, which can “have all kinds of ramifications,” said Marc Janowitz, staff attorney and clinical supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center.

Oakland hasn’t set a deadline for when you have to pay back the rent you missed during the pandemic. However, Alameda County’s ordinance gives tenants 12 months to pay it back before landlords can go after them for the debt. If the county officially adopts its ordinance next week, no renters will be able to get evicted for old unpaid rent, even if they weren’t financially affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Back rent will become debt for everyone in the county after the year’s up.

My lease ended in May. Can my landlord evict me? Will I owe rent for June if I stay?

You can’t be evicted if your lease ends during the pandemic, but you still owe rent if you stick around. “The default is you’d basically have a month-to-month lease,” said Peter Selawsky of the Eviction Defense Center. Landlords can still carry out what’s called an Ellis Act eviction, though, meaning they can make you leave if they’re taking the building off the rental market altogether, by selling it, for example. 

What if I want to break my lease? Since I lost my job I’d rather move back in with my parents and stop owing rent.

Many renters have been calling the East Bay Community Law Center with this question, said Janowitz. The ordinances don’t touch on this situation, but Janowitz, who represents tenants, said there are existing laws that support renters in this case. Even when there isn’t a pandemic, landlords are required to try, in good faith, to rent out a unit to someone else if the current tenant wants out. In an emergency, the renter might have even more flexibility, Janowitz said.

My tenant is making other tenants in his building feel unsafe. Can I evict him?

Oakland’s eviction moratorium includes an exception for imminent health and safety risks, meaning you might be able to evict that tenant. But only some things qualify as an “imminent threat.” Playing loud music doesn’t count, no matter how annoying it may be, and neither does a tenant causing damage to the apartment or refusing to let you enter the unit. But there are certainly serious threats that count, said Janowitz, such as “if a tenant has experienced an actual violent, physical threat by another tenant.” In Alameda County, courts just opened this week to start hearing those cases. 

I got an eviction notice in February, before the pandemic. Do I still need to move out?

Again, you’re still protected for now. The virus put all pending cases on hold, and eviction courts are still closed for most types of cases. But tenant advocates are worried that people will end up moving out anyway, choosing not to wait around in limbo to find out what will happen with their case.

I know I can’t be evicted in Oakland right now, but I’m worried about my cousin in Hayward and my friends in Castro Valley. 

Those folks are protected by Alameda County’s eviction moratorium. In March, the county passed a 90-day “urgency ordinance” prohibiting evictions temporarily, and now the Board of Supervisors is set to take a final vote on a more official moratorium next week. If that passes, nobody in Alameda County can be evicted until July 28. 

So which rules, the county’s or the city’s, would apply to an Oakland renter? 

That’s where things get complicated. Cities like Oakland can apply to “opt out” of the county ordinance if their tenant protections are “stronger.” Even if they opt out, certain pieces of the county’s rules could still override pieces of the city’s, according to the county.

“It’s a provision-by-provision opt-out,” said Jennifer Pearce, Alameda County’s housing and community development manager. “So Oakland would be able to opt out of a provision in the County moratorium if the city’s provision is stronger.” 

There’s been a lot of confusion about how these city, county, and state rules interact, especially because some of those policies themselves have changed multiple times.

“The patchwork of regulations here is a complete nightmare,” said Alex Werth, policy associate with East Bay Housing Organizations. “Under normal, non-emergency circumstances, the county doesn’t have the authority to legislate inside incorporated cities. This is new territory.” 

Werth put together a checklist of the rules in every East Bay city to try to clear up the confusion. (The Oaklandside hasn’t independently verified the information on the list.)

I live in a brand-new apartment complex in Oakland so I don’t have rent control. Does the eviction moratorium protect me?

You are not protected by Oakland’s eviction moratorium, which only applies to units covered by the city’s Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance. That ordinance only covers apartments and houses built before 1996, and it doesn’t cover people who live with their landlords. However, this is likely a case where the Alameda County moratorium would be deemed “stronger,” since it applies to all units, not just older ones. If that moratorium is officially approved next week, you could not be evicted until at least July 28.

I want to temporarily lower my tenant’s rent by 50% during the pandemic. Does that mean I won’t be able to raise her rent back to the normal price later? 

Nope, you can make a temporary agreement with your tenant without worrying that you’ll be locked into the lower rent forever. If you have a rent-controlled unit, any temporary decrease won’t become the “base rent” from here on out, as long as you spell out in writing the parameters of the agreement and sign it with your tenant. You could agree to cut $300 from the rent for two months, for example, or you could agree to cut $300 a month indefinitely, as long as you follow regular noticing laws once you’re ready to raise it back up again.

I live with three roommates and only one of us lost income because of the crisis. We’re all on the lease. Does that mean my whole house is protected from eviction after the crisis? 

Oakland’s prohibition on evictions over unpaid rent applies when there’s been a loss of “household” income. Even if some of the people on the lease kept their jobs during the crisis, if others didn’t, that counts as your “household” suffering due to the pandemic, Janowitz said. What may be more complicated, some lawyers say, is if only one master tenant is officially on the lease, but the subtenants are the ones who lost their income. Janowitz said he’d argue that the one leaseholder can’t reasonably be expected to pay the whole house’s rent, so this situation would count as a loss in household income. 

I told my landlord that I lost my job and can’t pay rent. He asked to see my bank statement to make sure I was telling the truth. Do I need to show it to him?

No, you do not need to show your landlord any documentation proving you’ve been affected by the pandemic. However, once the Oakland eviction moratorium expires, you’re only still protected from eviction if you lost income during the crisis. That means you might have to show some of this documentation in court to prove you were affected, if your landlord tries to evict you. Lawyers say to keep organized records in case you need them later. 

Either way, both the city and attorneys encourage renters to notify their landlords if you can’t pay rent and explain why. That’s an “emphatic of course,’” said Janowitz on the communication question. He advises tenants to share documents showing the COVID-19 impact too.

I’m a business owner who rents my shop, which I’ve had to close because of COVID-19. Can I get evicted if I don’t pay rent?

Oakland’s eviction moratorium protects you, too, as long as you don’t have more than 100 employees. Nonprofits are covered too. The protections for commercial tenants are in place until California’s state of emergency is lifted.

Will there be tons of evictions after the moratorium expires? 

It depends on whom you ask. Most tenant attorneys and advocates think a massive wave of evictions will come crashing down as soon as the pandemic is over. They say cities and counties should create policies that give tenants more financial relief, or strengthen their protections to prevent mass evictions, as many renters who lost their jobs during the crisis won’t immediately find work after it. “Everyone who does this side of work is kind of waiting for the ball to drop,” said Selawsky. “Whenever it is that the courts reopen, we’re expecting a flood of litigation.” And experts warn that Black and Latinx people will be hardest hit by any uptick in evictions across the country, since they’re more likely to be renters than white people, have been more impacted by job loss, and face other systemic barriers to wealth-building.

Landlord groups, on the other hand, say Oakland property owners will not be able to, or even want to, go after every last tenant who owes some money. That takes time and money from the landlords, too, they say, and whenever the courts reopen, they’ll have a big backlog of cases. Owners worry they’ll never see the months of rent payments they’ve missed.

My lease says I have to pay a late fee of $25 for each week of rent I miss. If I don’t pay rent in June and July, do I owe the regular amount after the moratorium ends, or do I owe an extra $200 too?

No, late fees are not allowed under Oakland’s moratorium for households with COVID-19-related income loss. Rent increases above the 3.5% allowed under the rent-control ordinance are not permitted either. (When there’s not a pandemic, landlords can increase some rents higher than that if they’ve made improvements to the unit, for example.)

I’m still confused.

Totally understandable! These rules are complicated and have changed a bunch of times.

“I try to leave tenants with the message that you have substantial new rights right now, but they shouldn’t feel bulletproof,” said Selawsky. “Some of those rights are in flux, some might be taken away, some protections might be extended, and some might be expired. You need to carefully monitor this. When in doubt, at the first sign of trouble, you should go to an attorney. There are resources here.”

Resources for Oakland tenants:

Oakland Rent Adjustment Program: (510) 238-3721

East Bay Community Law Center: (510) 548-4040 (ask to speak with Housing Intake)

Eviction Defense Center: (510) 452-4541

Centro Legal de la Raza: (510) 437-1554

Causa Justa/Just Cause: (510) 763-5877

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.