Issue I: Tenants’ Rights & COVID-19

UPDATED August 10, 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 due to 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. What happens to my rent obligation during the moratorium?

A. You must pay 25% of September 2020 - September 2021 rent. The balance becomes consumer debt. No payments are required until the end of September 2021, but the full 25% must be paid by then. If you owe back rent because of COVID, you are probably eligible for rent relief payments from the government. Find out more here.

Both tenants and landlords are eligible for rent relief in the amount of 100% of back rent owed starting April 1, 2020. Payments are retroactive, so any landlord or tenant who has already received a portion of back rent can still receive up to 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. Your landlord can sue you for rental debt in superior court beginning November 1, 2021.

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 up to a maximum of 18 months of total rental assistance.

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

A. No, at least not until October 1, 2021. 

In June, Governor Newsom signed AB-832, which extends California’s eviction moratorium through September 30, 2021. This moratorium prevents landlords from evicting tenants for failure to pay rent for COVID-19-related financial distress. That means:

  • Loss of income caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Increased out-of-pocket expenses directly related to performing essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Increased expenses directly related to the health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Childcare responsibilities or responsibilities to care for an elderly, disabled, or sick family member directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic that limit a tenant’s ability to earn income.

  • Increased costs for childcare or attending to an elderly, disabled, or sick family member directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Other circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic that have reduced a tenant’s income or increased a tenant’s expenses.

To get that protection, tenants must give their landlord a declaration of their COVID-19 related financial distress stating, under penalty of perjury, that their income has decreased or that their expenses have increased because of the pandemic. 

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. This will not apply to new tenancies created after October 1, 2021 (a new landlord/tenant relationship, not just a new lease). If a landlord does not make this showing within 60 days, the case will be dismissed without prejudice. 

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

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

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

A. You can’t be evicted until after October 1, 2021 unless the landlord has a “just cause” to evict you — whether you are at fault or not. After that, unless the moratorium is extended, yes you can be evicted.

Landlords cannot evict you unless they have “just cause” as defined by the statute (Civ. Code section 1946.2), including if you don’t pay rent or if the landlord intends to move in. 

Note that some cities in California also have long-standing rent control ordinances that impose “just cause eviction” 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. You’re more motivated (the landlord gets rent either way) and the pandemic could provide a plausible reason for landlords to say they couldn’t find anyone. 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 comply, whether or not you are able to pay rent.

Q. Don’t some cities have special local protections for renters, like rent control or allowing only “just cause” evictions? 

A. Yes, they do. For the specific 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.