Before the coronavirus shutdown, 24-year-old Alexa Lewis resided happily with four roommates in a spacious Richmond District flat for which she and her housemates paid $4,900 a month.
Then April came, and all hell broke loose. The master tenant moved out. Two other roommates moved back in with their parents, one in the East Bay and one in Sacramento. Suddenly Lewis, who works in public relations, was faced with finding three roommates at a time when a shelter-in-place order and soaring unemployment had paralyzed the housing and job markets.
“Me and my one remaining roommate were in a scramble to find new housemates who would sign a lease,” she said. “There was almost nobody looking for places, and those who were had pets, which our building doesn’t allow.”
Now May rent is due, and thousands of Bay Area renters like Lewis are facing rapid changes and growing uncertainties, as are their landlords. Many tenants are abruptly leaving town as jobs dry up, leaving roommates on the hook for large sums of rent. Students who expected to be in school are attempting to break leases because they are learning remotely from home. Tens of thousands of furloughed workers are unable to pay rent because they no longer have income.
Lewis got lucky: Her landlord agreed to accept partial rent for May and June and is not requiring the full security deposit. But she is the exception. Many of her friends are leaving San Francisco, the nation’s most expensive housing market.
“People who have family close to the Bay Area are moving there,” she said. “I don’t have that option. I’m from Texas. I don’t want to move back to Texas.”
San Francisco landlords and tenant advocates both say it’s unclear how many tenants won’t be able to pay rent in May. A San Francisco Apartment Association survey from April found that 93% of tenants paid all or a portion of their rent, compared with half of commercial tenants.
“The May results are going to be much, much worse,” said Charley Goss of the San Francisco Apartment Association. “In March, a lot of people worked for half the month and were able to pay some or all of the rent. Many San Franciscans have not worked at all in April. Meanwhile, our members have their mortgages, and property taxes are due,” most likely by May 15.
The pandemic-fueled downturn has inspired rent strikes and “cancel rent” rallies across the country. Emergency laws in California have given tenants new power. On April 6, state judicial leaders barred courts from enforcing eviction orders against renters, arguing that eviction orders “threaten to remove people from the very homes they have been instructed to remain in.” The action halts legal procedures used by property owners to initiate and enforce evictions. Since then, Bay Area counties have strengthened tenant protections. Rent increases during the crisis are now banned in San Francisco. Legislation by Supervisor Dean Preston would make it illegal for landlords to charge fees or penalties for missed rent.
Joe Tobener, an attorney who represents tenants, said that his office is getting flooded with calls. Some tenants are being pressured by landlords to pay rent even though they lost income because of the virus. Others are seeking to break a lease because they lost their job and want to leave the city. Tobener said they are getting 30 calls a week from tenants looking to get out of their leases.
“We are trying to help everyone,” he said. “It’s rewarding, but it’s also overwhelming.”
Many of those looking to break leases are the parents of Bay Area college students, most of whom are in quarantine at home. “There is not much to do to help them. You are stuck,” he said. “If you signed a lease, you are on the hook until the landlord can re-rent the unit.”
He tried to get out of the lease, but the landlord refused. “It is an extreme financial burden for us to pay every month without even occupying the apartment,” he said.
Lawmakers at both the state and federal level are working on legislation that would cancel rent and implement a “suspend and forgive” mortgage program under which the government, not the property owner, would compensate the mortgage provider for missed payments during the health emergency. A poll conducted by the Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress found that 75% of California voters would support measures to cancel and forgive rent and mortgage payments throughout the duration of the crisis.
Preston, a longtime tenant organizer, called the idea promising. “The landlord may not get 100 cents on the dollar — it may be 50 cents on the dollar — but they would get some money in hand and the tenant would get relief,” he said.
Meanwhile, many tenants still face uncertainty. Benjamin Malone, a human resources consultant who shares a live-work loft in the Mission District with a roommate, has been unable to pay his $5,000-a-month rent. His landlord is charging late fees — which wouldn’t be allowed under Preston’s pending legislation — and has asked to see his tax returns to prove he doesn’t have savings available to pay with. That is also not allowed by the health emergency.
“I do sales, so I am on commission,” Malone said. “I haven’t had a meeting in a couple of weeks. I told the landlord, and he said he would charge $500 on top of the $5,000.”
Rodrigo Lopez, a handyman and debris hauler, was evicted this year with his family from an Excelsior district garage that was knocked down to make way for development. He ended up in a studio apartment near 19th Avenue. “It was a new start for us,” he said. “I thought everything was going to be OK — then coronavirus came along.”
Since then, his work has disappeared and he was hospitalized with COVID-19. He has since recovered, but he has no money to feed his family or cover the rent.
“I am collecting food from the food bank — that is how we are eating,” he said.