To mitigate some of the effects of massive unemployment and pay reductions, and the business disruptions that have resulted from stay-at-home orders, a variety of residential and commercial tenancy eviction moratoriums have been imposed.
Much has been said about eviction moratoriums, but they are far more complex and nuanced than generally portrayed. It is clear that moratoriums are already having profound effects for both tenants and landlords. Reportedly about 69% of renters paid their April 2020 rent on time, down from 81% in March 2020. If the stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses continue, the percentage of renters failing to pay on time is almost sure to increase.
A moratorium is a legally authorized period of delay in the payment of a debt, such as rent. It is important to recognize that a moratorium is not debt forgiveness – the same rent remains owed, but the effects of nonpayment are modified. There are some who are currently demanding new rent forgiveness laws to permanently relieve tenants of obligations to pay rent that comes due during the COVID-19 emergency, but no such laws have been enacted anywhere in the U.S. at this time, to our knowledge.
Even during normal times, tenants are routinely evicted for nonpayment of rent. In California, the eviction process is normally accomplished by a speedy judicial action for “unlawful detainer” that can be initiated quickly, require a tenant to respond in court within 5 days, and in some circumstances can result in a judicial eviction order and a judgment for the amount of unpaid rent against the tenant in less than a month. In one way or another the moratoriums effectively slow down that process and give tenants more opportunities to pay the accrued rent to avoid eviction. To make matters more confusing, eviction moratoriums with varying requirements and terms have been enacted by the U.S. government, and by many states, counties and cities. Exactly how each moratorium applies does depends on where the rented property is located, and whether it is subject to a U.S., state, county or city moratorium.
Here, we’ll briefly examine the U.S., California state, Los Angeles County, and City of Los Angeles moratoriums as representative samples that give insight into how rent payment obligations and evictions have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadly speaking, U.S. laws can supersede state orders, and state orders supersede county and city orders, but stricter orders will usually be enforced over broader and more general ones. For that reason, it is very important to consider where the subject property is located and which state or local order may control that location.
The U.S. rent moratorium was part of the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act passed on March 27, 2020, and signed into law by President Trump on March 28, 2020. The U.S. order applies only to residential homes and apartments whose owners have federally-backed mortgages (typically Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgages), and tenants in federally-subsidized low-income housing. The CARES Act imposes a 120-day eviction moratorium for tenants unable to pay rent due to COVID-19 effects. While the U.S. moratorium applies to nearly half of the residential housing market, as a practical matter tenants rarely know if they can take advantage of it, so state eviction moratoriums have a bigger impact.
The California eviction moratorium order (No. N-37-20) was signed by Governor Newsom on March 27, 2020, and applies throughout the state. The March 27 order was designed to strengthen a previous directive (No. N-28-20) that merely gave local jurisdictions authority to temporarily halt residential and commercial evictions due to financial reasons related to COVID-19. The California state order now extends the time for tenants to respond to an unlawful detainer lawsuit by another 60 days, in addition to the usual 5 days. To qualify for the extension of time, the tenant must have previously paid rent to the landlord under an agreement (typically a lease) and, within seven days of the rent becoming due, must have notified the landlord of the inability to pay rent for reasons related to COVID-19 (such as being sick, losing work, or missing work while caring for a child or family member). The tenant is required to maintain documentation proving the changed financial circumstances, but only needs to provide that documentation to the landlord by the time the tenant later pays the back-due rent.
Because the California state order is tied to the unlawful detainer statute, it appears that the statewide deadline to pay the back-due rent is in effect 65 days from an unlawful detainer lawsuit being filed, provided that the tenant qualifies for the COVID-19 related relief. This puts into the landlord’s hands when to start the clock for payment of back rent by initiating an unlawful detainer action to evict the tenant, but the tenant has just over two months to even respond to the suit. There does not appear to be an expiration date for the California state moratorium, which means that the unlawful detainer process could be slowed in this manner for the foreseeable future (though some commentators believe the May 31, 2020 expiration date in the preceding Order No. 28-20 might apply to the March 27 Order No. N-37-20 as well – that remains to be clarified).
But that is not the end of the analysis, because many cities and counties have stricter orders. On March 19, 2020 Los Angeles County enacted an order forbidding a residential or commercial property owner to file an eviction suit or otherwise evict a tenant before May 31, 2020, for non-payment of rent or any other no-fault scenario (such as a lease ending or the landlord removing the unit from the market). Like the state order, to qualify for this eviction moratorium the tenant must demonstrate an inability to pay due to financial impacts related to COVID-19 and must provide notice to the landlord within seven days of the rent becoming due. Under the Los Angeles County order, tenants have six months following the termination of the order – currently meaning until the end of November 2020 – to pay all back rent. But if the moratorium expires as currently scheduled, the qualifying tenants must begin paying current rent starting June 1, 2020, and have six months to make up their back rent. The order encourages payment plans but permits tenants to pay in any increments as long as the back-due rent is paid in full within the six-month window.
The City of Los Angeles enacted a series of eviction moratorium orders, on March 15, 17, 23 and 31, 2020, that similarly restrict commercial and residential evictions. Los Angeles city’s moratorium now has no expiration period other than the end of the “Local Emergency Period,” whenever that may be declared by the Mayor of Los Angeles. As finally enacted by the Los Angeles City Council, Ordinance No. 20-0147-S19 extends, for residential tenants, the time to pay back rent to twelve months after the Mayor declares an end of the Local Emergency Period. Commercial tenants have the same protections, but only three months to pay the accrued back rent after the end of the Local Emergency Period.
But wait, there’s more. Recall that the state modification of the unlawful detainer notice requirement does not have a clear expiration date. If it is determined to extend past May 31, 2020, the state order will continue to allow 65 days for a tenant to respond to an unlawful detainer eviction lawsuit, if the nonpayment was due to COVID-19 related reasons. That effectively extends for another two months the tenant’s ability to not pay rent and yet retain possession of the property.
Despite the complexity of the many jurisdictions’ overlapping orders, at present all tenants remain obligated to pay all lawfully charged rent. So tenants who maximize their withholding of rent will build up a huge debt of unpaid rent, and eventual eviction will become much more likely. For all concerned, it is best for landlords and tenants to work cooperatively to agree on a payment plan, including partial payments and deadlines. These agreements should be committed to at least informal writings in case they are needed as evidence. Landlords should be careful to specify in any writing that these are temporary agreements that are a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic and associated government orders, that the rent is not waived or reduced but rather delayed, and that the subject lease agreement is not modified or otherwise affected by the rent timing concession.
Lastly, it is very possible that the moratoriums will be extended if stay-at-home orders and workforce reductions continue, which could cause significant concerns for property owners who have mortgage payments due. Many lenders have instituted some kind of mortgage payment delay option – but caution is advisable because they too have pitfalls. Some jurisdictions have enacted limited moratoriums on mortgage payments, so it is advisable to investigate those for your areas and speak with lenders regarding mortgages. And stay tuned as popular pressure builds for new laws to provide some form of mortgage and rent forgiveness.
Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay abreast of Coronavirus-related issues affecting business clients, including their landlord-tenant relations. CK&E has published blogs about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and other governmental COVID-19 responses that may be useful resources for income replacement, for the benefit of both tenants and landlords.