California residential landlords are faced with very real challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 1, 2020, the first traditional rent-paying date during the pandemic, 30 percent of residential tenants across the United States failed to pay rent, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. That number is expected to increase, and perhaps significantly so, when the May 1, 2020, traditional rent payment date rolls around. (This informational article was written the week before the May “first of the month” rent payment date.) In addition to tenants not paying rent in ever-increasing numbers, landlords must also comply with restrictions placed on the eviction process by the state of California and local units of government. We discuss these restrictions as well as the rights of landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic and strategies landlords need to consider utilizing to protect these legal interests.
State of California Restrictions on Evictions
There exists a considerable amount of confusion regarding the status of California residential landlords and tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated statewide “shutdown” and restrictions on various activities throughout the state. This confusion arises out of a couple of primary reasons.
First, at this time there are state and local directives regarding evictions and what landlords can and cannot do. Second, the statewide mandates regarding restrictions on evictions represent the second incarnation of these directives since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, on the state level both the Governors and the California Judicial Council (the California court system), each issued directives regarding evictions in the state of California.
These basic historical notes are enough for the purposes of this discussion. The better part of valor dictates that we should dive in specifically to the current restriction on eviction in the state of California and the rights of landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No eviction case in California can proceed as long as the Governor’s state of emergency is in place. This now not only includes eviction for nonpayment of rent but nearly any other kind of eviction with one important exception. If an eviction case is necessary to protect health and safety, it can proceed normally and without any impediment arising from the COVID-19 state of emergency.
In addition to not proceeding during the state of emergency, there is a moratorium on evictions moving forward through the court system for 90 days after the end of the state of emergency. This means that a summons in an eviction case cannot be served on a tenant if a case is filed. It is the service of a summons that starts the judicial process moving forward. In addition, if a case was pending before the start of the state of emergency, trials in all of these pending cases must be delayed for at least 60 days.
As you will note in this discussion, special emphasis has been placed on the words proceed and proceeding. This is important and highlights a major area of confusion in regard to restrictions on the overall eviction process associated with the California COVID-19 state of emergency.
The restrictions placed on residential restrictions in California during the state of emergency pertain only to the actual judicial process. A landlord is not prohibited from taking initial steps associated with an eviction, specifically the service of an appropriate notice to vacate the premises or resolve the underlying lease violation. For example, if a tenant has failed (or is failing) to pay rent – even during the COVID-19 state of emergency – a landlord is not prohibited from demanding payment of rent according to the terms of a lease.
If the tenant fails to pay rent within the time period set forth within a lawful eviction notice, the case becomes ripe for filing an eviction case in court. A landlord has the legal ability during the state of emergency (and during the 90-day period after it ends) to file an eviction case. The case will not move forward during the state of emergency or 90 days after. However, it will be at the head of what will be a long queue of cases that undoubtedly will be filed following the expiration of the 90-day term following the California COVID-19 state of emergency.
Even if a landlord takes these steps to protect his or her legal interests, nothing precludes a landlord from working out an agreement with a tenant regarding rent payments. Taking the steps of serving an eviction notice and actually filing an eviction case (that will not be served on the tenant during the state of emergency and subsequent 90 days) fully protects the legal rights available at this time and into the immediate future.
Local Restrictions on Evictions
Some, but not all, individual cities and counties throughout California have enacted their own restrictions on what a landlord can and cannot do during the COVID-19 state of emergency. If a city or county has less restrictive directives than what the state has in place, the state restrictions control.
On the other hand, if a local unit of government has more severe restrictions on what a landlord can do during the state of emergency, those mandates will govern. For this reason, you need to stay abreast of the state of regulations on the city and county level. You can access this information via the California Eviction Moratorium portal.
Residential landlords must remain abreast of the restriction associated with evictions in California. Bear in mind that at this time there is no firm date for the end of the state of emergency. It is that date that will trigger a rather slow end to the judicial pause on residential evictions in the state.