The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 to block evictions for the next two months because of the coronavirus scare.
The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 to block evictions for the next two months because of the coronavirus scare. The council used social distancing on Tuesday, sitting six feet part, with councilmembers Michael Jordan and Alejandra Gutierrez sitting where the audience sits.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

People in Santa Barbara who cannot pay their rents for April and May won’t get evicted from their homes or places of business.

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to pass a moratorium on evictions for residential and commercial tenants. The council, however, stopped short of setting a deadline for when people will have to pay back the rents. The council agreed to let the property owners and managers work it out individually with tenants.

“I really don’t want to do this,” said Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon, who was visibly anguished in her comments. “We’re at the beginning of what is going to be just a domino effect, economic crisis. It’s going to hit the renters first and then it is going to hit the owners later, but with far bigger risks and losses. We talk about the pain of eviction. The pain of foreclosure may not be in our recent memory, but it is coming.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered people’s normal way of life, creating a stark reality that would have been unimaginable just a month ago. The government’s mandate of social distancing and shelter-in-place has brought entire industries to their knees and thrashed the economy. In Santa Barbara, most of the city is a business ghost town. The fear of the virus has hollowed out retail shops, restaurants and theaters, and thousands of people have lost their jobs because of layoffs or furloughs.

It is unclear when the COVID-19 virus epidemic will peak, but what is becoming more vivid is that the broken economy is going to take years to rebuild.

“In order to combat the spread of this virus, we have to stay home,” Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said. “We have to shelter in place. Tenants deserve and they should have the security of knowing that for the duration of this crisis they will be able to maintain the status quo. They will be able to remain in their space and by doing so do their part to protect public health. What I am looking to do is protect public health by allowing tenants to remain in their space for the duration of this crisis.”

Tenants must be able to show proof of financial hardship related to the coronavirus and notify their landlords before the 20th of April and May.

The council also toyed with the idea of creating a deadline for tenants to pay back their missed rents. Initially the council had proposed six months, but property managers and owners objected — raising concerns that six months would be too long to wait for payment and that it also interfered with their own ability to negotiate with tenants. 

“I consider this as the government taking away my property rights and the property rights of all other landlords in the city,” said Jim Knell, chairman of Sima corporation. “You are taking the right to negotiate with my tenants. You are also putting me and other residential and commercial property owners and our families in financial jeopardy. You would be depriving all residential and commercial property owners who rent or lease their properties of income to maintain staff salaries, pay property taxes and operating expenses.”

Dan Lindsay, a property manager and member of the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association, asked the council to lobby the state to get a deferral on the April 10 property tax due date. If renters don’t pay their rents for two months, he said, that has direct impacts on rental property owners. 

“We have mortgage payments, property taxes, licenses, insurances, things like this are due immediately upon landlords,” Lindsay said. “We don’t get a break.”

He suggested a 90-day deferral.

“Everybody likes to think that the landlord is money bags and has unlimited resources to underwite this, it’s not that case,” he said. “And I know we are all living on the edge here in Santa Barbara.”

Tuesday’s meeting was a spectacle in itself. Councilmembers sat six feet apart, with councilmembers Mike Jordan and Alejandra Gutierrez sitting where the staff usually sits, facing the rest of the council. Only one member of the media was present — and members of the public had to call in on the telephone to give testimony. 

Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez said landlords should be able to negotiate directly with their tenants, rather than the city mandating when rent payments are due.

“There are a lot of landlords out there who are actually good landlords and want to work with their tenants and sometimes their arrangements are actually better than what staff can recommend,” Gutierrez said. “But I also want the renters to understand that we are putting this in place not to just stop paying, but to help you.”

She said the renters will get hit the hardest because a lot of them work two jobs. 

“They are living paycheck to paycheck,” Gutierrez said. “I am going to put myself out there. I live paycheck to paycheck so for me it is important that we have this no eviction.”

Councilman Michael Jordan said the situation is dynamic and fluid. He is trusting that the property owners will work with tenants to avoid evictions, while still collecting rents. If the council hears that landlords are not working with tenants to collect rents without forcing them out, the council could easily hold a meeting in May and pass an ordinance that allows the tenants six months to repay the rents. He said property owners should do everything they can to remedy the situation appropriately for both parties. 

“The No. 1 issue is keeping people in their houses and people in their buildings,” Jordan said. 

County Board of Supervisors also approves ordinance prohibiting evictions

Also Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an urgency ordinance to temporarily prohibit evictions.

The measure protects residential and commercial renters in unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County from being evicted during the local health emergency proclamation. It will temporarily ban and suspend evictions arising from the loss of income or substantial coronavirus-related medical expenses.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino attended by teleconference.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino attended Tuesday’s meeting by teleconference from the Santa Maria board room. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The urgency ordinance does not relieve a tenant’s obligations to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent due.

Protections are in effect through May 31 or until the local proclamation of emergency is terminated, according to the ordinance.

“This is an unprecedented moment economically for many of our local residents in the county,” said Second District County Supervisor Gregg Hart, who co-sponsored the agenda item with First District County Supervisor Das Williams. “There are a lot of levels of government trying to lessen the impact financially on people who are going to be struggling, and are struggling because businesses are closing and they are being laid off from their jobs.”

The county’s ordinance also reiterates Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive statewide order to banks, investors and other financial institutions to halt foreclosures and related evictions, and asks public housing authorities “to extend deadlines for housing assistance recipients or applications to deliver records or documents related to their eligibility for programs, to the extent that those deadlines are within the discretion of the housing authority.”

The loss of wages caused by coronavirus-related impacts might affect a tenant’s ability to pay rent and leave renters vulnerable to evictions and homelessness.

Retail, restaurant and other businesses were forced to close their doors temporarily in response to the state-ordered lockdown. Many employees had their work hours cut and some businesses had to lay off some workers.

“If there were a large number of evictions we would either have more people congregating as homeless or more people congregating in the homes of friends and family,” Williams said. “That is not a good thing for limiting the spread of coronavirus.”

Many jurisdictions across California, including San Luis Obispo County and the city of Goleta, have similar emergency ordinances and eviction protections for tenants who are unable to pay their rent because of lost income from the coronavirus pandemic.

Newsom last week issued an executive order authorizing local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners. His executive order comes as Californians experience substantial loss of hours, wages or coronavirus-related layoffs, impacting their ability to pay their rent, mortgage and utility bills, according to a statement released March 16 by the governor’s office.

The order does not relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent and landlords can still recover rent that is due, the statement said. 

Newsom’s order is effective through May 31 unless it’s extended.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week authorized the Federal Housing Administration to implement an immediate foreclosure and eviction moratorium for single-family homeowners with Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages for 60 days.

Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meetings also are closed to in-person public attendance as a measure to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Alternative participation methods were implemented at Tuesday’s meeting, including ways to watch remotely and offer public comments via email or phone.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino attended by teleconference.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland contributed reporting to this story.