Issue I: Tenants’ Rights & COVID-19

UPDATED September 14, 2020

Part of our COVID-19 Consumer Protection Guide series.

The pandemic has displaced all of us from our daily routines. Many have also been physically uprooted from their rental apartments and homes, especially students who may have returned to stay with family. These students may be looking for ways to end their one-year leases early. Others may be struggling to pay rent to keep their apartments, and feeling concerned about eviction. 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. No, at least not for a while.

Governor Newsom signed AB 3088, which 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.

Tenants can be evicted for failure to pay rent for months starting Feb. 1, 2021, and later, but not for the back rent balance (if a tenant makes payments required.)

The CDC put in a temporary order to prevent evictions, which currently expires 12/31/2020. It is not as protective, however, as California’s eviction order. It prevents eviction if tenants fail to pay rent for specified financial hardships.

Q. What happens to my rent obligation?

A. No payments are required for March – August rent, but you must pay 25% of September – December rent. Your landlord could sue you for the unpaid rent in small claims court starting March 1, 2021.

Under AB 3088, for tenants who cannot pay rent because of COVID-19 related financial distress, tenants must make the following payments for the following periods:

  • Mar. 1, 2020 – Aug. 31, 2020: No payments required, but the rent is converted to consumer debt. Tenants still owe this amount, but cannot be evicted for failure to pay.
  • Sept. 1, 2020 – Jan. 31, 2021: Tenants must pay 25% of each month of rent owed for this period by January 31, 2020. Remaining debt is subject to a small claims lawsuit.

Landlords may not file a small claims action to obtain unpaid rent until March 1, 2021.

Under the CDC order, tenants must pay as much rent as they can each month.

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 Oct 5, 2020. After that, yes.

AB 3088 prevents unlawful detainers from being filed if nonpayment is at least one of the causes of action until Oct. 5, 2020.

AB 3088 stops “no-cause” evictions until February 1, 2021, meaning that landlords cannot evict you unless they have “just cause” as defined by the statute, including nonpayment of rent.

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 tenant to replace you, it will be difficult for your landlord to require that you keep paying rent.

Q. Can I show my apartment during the shelter-in-place order?

A. Likely, yes. Under the order, moving can be an essential activity.

Technically, moving is considered essential if the move was already planned, or if the move is necessitated by safety, sanitation, or habitability reasons, or if the move is necessary to preserve access to shelter.

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. Plumbers, electricians, and others who provide for the habitability of residences are considered essential under the shelter-in-place order.

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.