A woman speaks through a megaphone as people gather behind her under umbrellas. They're holding banners that say "eviction moratorium is robbery."
Oakland homeowner Hannah Kirk addresses fellow landlords at a rally Tuesday against the eviction moratorium. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Pandemic eviction bans are phasing out around Alameda County, bringing relief to landlords and worrying tenants that masses of people will soon lose their housing.

When Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss lifted the county’s COVID-19 emergency order Tuesday—the same day that California’s ended—that triggered the beginning of the end of the county’s eviction moratorium. The policy, which prohibits evictions for almost all reasons, including nonpayment of rent, will sunset in 60 days, at 11:59 p.m. on April 29.

That won’t impact most renters in Oakland, however, because the city has its own moratorium. The city has not yet decided when to end the municipal state of emergency or moratorium.

Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas told The Oaklandside that the city needs to be “very mindful of how we lift [the moratorium] to make sure there isn’t another wave of displacement.” She said she’s working on “crafting a policy that will consider supporting those who are most housing-insecure as well as protecting small property owners.” 

Bas said she’s not ready to provide details on what that will look like, but officials have previously talked about phasing out the moratorium so it stays in place for certain renter groups longer than others. She said Oakland will also be watching how things play out in Berkeley, which just extended its moratorium until August but will allow some types of evictions in phases before then.

Oakland, Berkeley, and the county’s eviction moratoriums were all passed in March 2020, in hopes of maintaining housing security as people lost their jobs or other sources of income because of the pandemic. One of the goals was to prevent a rise in homelessness during a health crisis.

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Landlords and tenant advocates wait for supervisors to return to the board meeting, the last to follow social-distancing guidelines before the state of emergency expired. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

On Tuesday, dozens of landlords rallied outside the county administration building on Oak Street and spoke during the board meeting inside, saying three years of prohibiting evictions of tenants who don’t pay rent constitutes “robbery” and “abuse” of property owners. Some called for the board to end the moratorium sooner than the end of April, and others pleaded with the supervisors to figure out a way to reimburse landlords for rent they’re owed.

Property owners are facing a county board that is more receptive to their pleas than it would have been just weeks or months ago. District 2 Supervisor Richard Valle, who represented Hayward and Union City, died just a couple weeks ago. In his seat Tuesday was a photo of the official, adorned with flowers. And in November 2021, D3 Supervisor Wilma Chan, who represented part of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro, was killed by a driver while walking her dog. Both late supervisors were steadfast advocates for tenants’ rights and protections. 

While Valle’s seat has not been filled yet, voters in November elected former Alameda councilmember Lena Tam to serve D3. Tam’s campaign was backed by landlord and real estate interests, and she has drawn criticism from tenant groups who believe she’s already begun putting the county on a different course with housing policy. 

Tam was among the majority of supervisors Tuesday night who abstained when voting on a package of renter protections for the unincorporated areas of the county, including the creation of a rent registry, a “fair chance” law banning criminal background checks of tenants, and a “just cause” policy requiring landlords to have a reason to carry out an eviction. The abstentions caused the policies to fail, even though they had passed an initial vote last year, when the makeup of the board was different. 

Tam and Supervisor David Haubert, who represents Dublin, Livermore, and most of Fremont, also abstained on an extension of existing legal services for tenants funded by the county, causing the end of that contract. 

Landlords rally and hunger-strike, accusing county of ‘abuse’

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Jingyu Wu, also known as George, said he was hunger striking in protest of the eviction moratorium, which has prevented him from evicting a tenant who he says owes him $120,000 in rent. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

A few hours before the board took up the housing items, a group of property owners bundled up for the rain and rallied in front of the building, holding signs that said “Stop the theft” and “Gov’t enables abuse.”

Oakland homeowner Hannah Kirk took the megaphone, describing how she rented a room in her house in 2019 to a fellow single mother. It became a “toxic situation with no escape,” she said, after the woman stopped paying rent and refused to cooperate with Kirk’s application for rental assistance from the county, which required tenant participation. Kirk said she felt uncomfortable continuing to live with the renter and later moved out with her two children.

“I offered her cash to move out,” said Kirk, who said the back rent totals $15,000. “The eviction moratorium has exploited my own goodwill.”

Another landlord, Jingyu Wu, who goes by George, said he was hunger-striking to demand an end to the moratorium, which has prevented him from evicting a tenant who he says owes him $120,000. Wu declined to be interviewed Tuesday, directing reporters to a friend he said could speak on his behalf. 

That friend, Jenny Zhao, said the tenant, one of the residents in the San Leandro triplex Wu owns, had stopped paying rent before the pandemic, and that Wu had filed for an eviction just before courts closed. She said his tenant also refused to apply for rent relief.

It was not clear what would need to happen for Wu to end his protest, given that the county moratorium is already on track to expire. San Leandro, however, extended its city moratorium an additional year, with periodic reviews.

Later during the meeting, Laura Bixby, a lawyer with the East Bay Community Law Center, said landlords in this situation aren’t helpless.

“They have a remedy,” she said. “They can sue their tenants for unpaid rent. But the tenants I work with can’t afford their back rent.”

The county moratorium is ending. What’s next?

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A renter from unincorporated Alameda County addresses the board, asking them to pass tenant protections for her area. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

For months, Haubert and Nate Miley, who represents parts of Oakland and Pleasanton and unincorporated areas like Castro Valley, Ashland, and Cherryland, have been urging a reconsideration of the moratorium. 

Valle and Supervisor Keith Carson, whose district includes Berkeley, Emeryville, weren’t interested, saying the protections were still needed. They were supported by Dave Brown, who temporarily filled Chan’s seat after her death, until Tam was sworn into office in January.

When the supervisor’s agenda finally turned Tuesday to a discussion of placing the eviction ban on an upcoming agenda, Haubert said it was “rather moot.” 

“The eviction moratorium is going to expire at this point, so I think we should just let it expire,” Haubert said. 

Carson said the county should spend the next two months easing the transition.

“On any side, you’d want some reasonable time to unwind,” he said. “We need to spend a lot of real focused energy figuring out what going forward looks like.”

The board asked county staff to come back with a report on the housing assistance the county currently offers tenants and landlords, and possibilities for after the moratorium. The report will also include data on the rent relief program and who it didn’t and didn’t serve. Michelle Starratt, the county’s housing director, said she’s also working with the East Bay Rental Housing Association (EBRHA), a landlord advocacy group, to try to determine the amount of unpaid rent that is owed from the pandemic, a difficult calculation to make.

EBRHA CEO Derek Barnes said that “magnitude is important to understand,” and could call for new relief programs for landlords, such as property tax forgiveness. At Tuesday’s rally, he told The Oaklandside that he’s not opposed to some protections remaining for renters, as “there’s no denying people are still recovering,” but said tenants should have to prove they have a financial hardship. 

He criticized Oakland for “only just starting discussions about programmatic solutions,” calling the city “so far behind the eight-ball.”

Bas said the ongoing rollout of Oakland’s own rental assistance program is one of the reasons why the city needs to be cautious about how it lifts its moratorium.

“We’ve been able to disperse millions of dollars,” said the council president, “doing it in a way that looks at the highest risk factors and the people most likely to become homeless.” But there are thousands of very low-income people still on the waitlist, she said, and in January there was still $13 million that needed to be distributed to people who’ve already applied. Those numbers show the ongoing need for support for people who will be at risk of displacement when the eviction ban ends, Bas said.

Many reports have found that rent relief programs across the state struggled to meet demand and experienced hitches in distribution.

“I think we can all safely say that Oakland was underfunded,” Starratt said. “They did not receive the amount they needed.”

Board strikes down tenant protections for unincorporated Alameda County

Tenant groups are bracing for a “wave of evictions” after the moratoriums expire, which they say will exacerbate already high rates of displacement and homelessness in the county.

Joshua Howard, an executive with landlord advocacy group California Apartment Association, called into the county meeting and told supervisors he thinks tenant groups are “fear mongering” about impending evictions. But data shows that eviction rates skyrocketed in other Bay Area counties after they lifted their bans.

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A tribute to late Supervisor Richard Valle stands in the county board room. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Renters in the unincorporated areas of Alameda County will be especially vulnerable, because they don’t have the kinds of protections tenants benefit from in cities like Oakland and Berkeley, speakers said Tuesday.

One such protection is free legal help for tenants facing eviction. Oakland contracts with nonprofits to provide this kind of assistance. The county also had aa contract that’s been in place for several years with Centro Legal de la Raza to provide free legal help, but the supervisors voted Tuesday not to extend it. The vote, on which Tam and Haubert abstained and Miley and Carson voted yes, would have continued the contract through the end of June, covering the first two months after the moratorium expires.

In a report, county staffers said the program has served 2,037 tenants, as well as 137 homeowners facing foreclosure, so far, and that they expect “the need for legal services to increase as landlords begin to serve tenants with eviction notices again.”

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for tenant advocacy group ACCE, told the board the decision was “incredibly shameful.”

“Anyone who has the nerve to defund the legal assistance program the day the emergency ends clearly has no heart,” she said.

Tam later said she supported legal services but “wanted to better understand where that money went and how it was used” before renewing the contract.

Tenants in unincorporated areas faced another setback yesterday, when supervisors struck down a set of tenant protections, including the creation of a rent registry with data on rental housing and costs, a just-cause policy listing eligible reasons for evictions, and a fair-chance ordinance removing criminal background checks from the application process. 

Renters have been organizing around policies for several years, and county staff have spent that time developing the legislation, meeting with landlords and giving funds to community organizations to conduct research and interviews in parts of the county where the protections would take effect. The board approved the policies last year, but all ordinances require a “second reading” before they go into effect. Usually this second vote is a formality, but in this case the new board used the opportunity to reject the policies.

In January, when the second reading was postponed, the activist group Moms 4 Housing disrupted and shut down a board meeting, demanding promises from supervisors that they’d pass the policies.

On Tuesday, Jesse Burleson, a senior organizer with All of Us or None, was among several formerly incarcerated speakers who said a fair-chance policy is needed to enable them to successfully transition back into society.

“Some of us would like to move into unincorporated areas without antiquated applications that seem Jim Crow-ish,” he said.

The Eden area has high rates of poverty, added Carmen Jovel, deputy director of housing with the East Bay Community Law Center. “The eviction moratorium will end in 60 days and these tenants have virtually nothing else,” they said.

Many landlords who spoke said the policies would undermine their ability to use their property how they wanted after years of the eviction ban, while tenants said their human rights should take priority.

“I have a lot of respect for property rights,” Miley responded to the speakers. “I don’t think human rights trump property rights, nor do I think property rights trump human rights. As an elected official, we should look at both.”

Ultimately, Miley, Tam, and Haubert abstained on the rent registry and just-cause policies, while Carson voted in favor. On the fair-chance ordinance, Tam and Haubert abstained while Carson and Miley voted yes. The officials who made abstentions said they would support continued work on the policies and bringing back the proposals in the future.

In Oakland, virtually all of the policies rejected at the county level already exist. The city has its own contracts for legal services for renters and property owners, a fair-chance law bans background checks, and the city is preparing to launch a rent registry. 

And not only has Oakland had just-cause rules in place for many years, but voters chose to expand them to cover more renters last year.

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.