Issue I: Tenants’ Rights & COVID-19

UPDATED November 2, 2021

Part of our COVID-19 Consumer Protection Guide series.

Over the course of the pandemic, numerous local, state, and federal protections have been enacted for tenants — especially for those who couldn’t pay rent because of COVID. This guide answers some frequently asked questions about new and old rules governing tenants’ rights in California and the Bay Area, and provides links to further resources.

FAQs for Renters

Q. I can’t pay my rent because of the coronavirus. Can I be evicted?

A. Alameda County residents are still protected by an eviction moratorium, and those outside Alameda County may still have some protections against eviction.

Alameda County still has an eviction moratorium in place for those who are struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic. It will continue until 60 days after the public health emergency has ended — and public officials have not ended the public health emergency yet or indicated it will end any time soon.

Outside of Alameda County, from October 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022, courts will not issue a summons in an unlawful detainer (eviction) case based on non-payment of rental debt that “accumulated due to COVID hardship” unless the landlord can show that they applied for rental assistance and the application was denied. If a landlord does not make this showing within 60 days, the case will be dismissed without prejudice (meaning it can be filed again later). The protection does not apply to new tenancies created after October 1, 2021 (a new landlord/tenant relationship, not just a new lease).

Further, landlords are prohibited from interrupting or terminating a tenant’s utility service with the intent to end that tenant’s occupancy.

The state has a tenant protections website with up-to-date info.

Q. What happens to my rent obligation if I can't pay because of the pandemic?

A. Starting October 1, 2021, you must pay your rent in full. If you owe back rent because of COVID, you are probably eligible for rent relief payments from the government. Find out more here.

All renters were required to pay at least 25% of rent for September 2020 - September 2021. The full amount (25% of the whole year’s rent) was due at the end of September. Any balance became consumer debt. Your landlord can sue you for rental debt in superior court or small claims court beginning November 1, 2021. If you did not pay 25% of your rent by the deadline, you can be evicted.

However, both tenants and landlords are eligible for a year’s worth of rent relief in the amount of 100% of back rent owed starting April 1, 2020. You qualify for rent relief if you have been financially affected by the pandemic and you earn less than 80% of your area’s median income. Payments are retroactive, so any landlord or tenant who has already received a portion of back rent can still receive any outstanding amounts, up to a total of 100%. As a tenant, you can apply on your own even if your landlord does not apply. If you receive the rent relief funds, you must give the funds to your landlord within 15 days.

The CFPB has created a rental assistance tool to help tenants who are struggling to pay rent find programs in their area.

Q. What if I can’t pay my upcoming rent?

A. If you are unable to pay your rent going forward, you may be eligible to receive some or all of your upcoming rent for the next three months, up to a maximum of 18 months of total rental assistance.

Q. I can’t pay my rent for a non-coronavirus-related reason. Can I be evicted?

A. Yes, you can likely be evicted. But some cities have “just cause” evictions that can help protect you.

California’s statewide eviction protections expired on October 1, 2021, meaning that outside of the pandemic protections described above, things are back to the way they were. 

California provides some “just cause” eviction protections for renters, with several exceptions. Some cities in California also have long-standing rent control ordinances that impose even stricter limitations on landlords, including Berkeley and Oakland

Q. Can I get out of my lease because I am living away from my rental or want to move? 

A. If you are in a one-year lease and seek to end it early, you may be responsible for the rent if you do not have a replacement tenant. Month-to-month tenants need to give 30 days notice in writing to their landlords that they plan to move.

If your lease is longer than month-to-month and you end the lease early, the law requires your landlord to try to find another tenant for the rest of the lease term. But it’s probably a good idea for you to try to find that replacement tenant yourself if you can. If you are able to find a suitable prospective tenant to replace you, it will be difficult for your landlord to require that you keep paying rent.

Q. How do I get my security deposit back? 

A. With exceptions, landlords have to return your security deposit within 21 days.

After a tenant has moved out, the landlord may only withhold money from the security deposit for the following reasons: 

  • Unpaid rent

  • Damage to the unit beyond normal wear and tear

  • Cleaning the rental unit (only to make it as clean as when the tenant moved in)

  • If specified in the lease, personal property that the tenant failed to restore or replace.

The Berkeley Rent Board has helpful suggestions for recovering your security deposit and you can reach out to them for help. If you are having trouble getting your security deposit back, you can also call Bay Area Legal Aid or EBCLC for advice.

Q. What if my apartment needs a repair? 

A. Contact your landlord in writing.

If you need a repair, contact your landlord in writing as soon as possible and be specific. Follow up any phone calls with a written request or confirmation. Do not withhold your rent. Take pictures of the damage or issue. If the landlord is not making repairs, call the city inspectors or code enforcement. After that, if the landlord continues to refuse to make repairs, you can take legal action against them. They must make necessary repairs, whether or not you are able to pay rent.

Q. Even now that the statewide Tenant Protection Act is in effect, don’t some cities have additional local protections for renters?

A. Yes, they do. For the specific additional tenant protections in your city and county, you can look to your local ordinances and sources of information.

Q. I need help with a specific rental issue.

This guide is intended for informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice.