On Tuesday evening, in its first remote meeting after the state and county safer-at-home mandates, the Whittier City Council enacted a COVID-19 eviction moratorium in a 4-1 vote, opposed by Councilmember Josue Alvarado. Fashioned similarly to other cities’, the temporary ordinance is set to end on May 31, unless preventive measures fail to flatten the curve.
Whittier’s eviction moratorium is intended to keep renters safe at home, which slows the spread of virus and mitigates massive societal disruption. Whittier is a city with a large population of housing-insecure residents including but not limited to those living below the poverty line.
With California’s rate of identified cases doubling every 3-4 days, despite lags in testing access, the COVID-19 pandemic has done anything but slow down in the last week. Responses in the past week ranged from Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti ordering L.A. residents to stay indoors except for essential tasks, President Trump enacting the Defense Production Act, and a bill being proposed in the Senate to pay each American during the self-imposed quarantine. Just after midnight on Wednesday, the White House and U.S. Senate released the resulting $1 trillion economic stimulus bill with accessible support for business and the newly unemployed across the nation.
The government – local, state, and national – has slowly steered non-essential workers towards home-based self-quarantine–but those who can’t work from home can’t pay the rent. Many fear this side effect of social distancing will push them out of housing. California Governor Gavin Newsom made an executive order allowing local governments to halt evictions, but left the details up to each city and county. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Whittier City Council, Assistant City Attorney Richard Adams clarified, “The executive order doesn’t have anything about repayment period, what it says is that in no way does the executive order or any of these ordinances allow the person to not have to pay the rent.”
The Council’s Tuesday agenda included discussing the potential eviction moratorium. An online petition also urged the Council to vote to enact a moratorium to halt all evictions in the city of Whittier.
“Staying at home requires a home,” reads the petition put forth by a coalition of Whittier residents and local organizations addressing the Whittier City Council. Sustainable City Director Megan Hobza, who edits this publication, posted the petition on behalf of a larger group including: Pam Teeter (First United Methodist Church of Whittier); David Barboza (Homes For Whittier); Allison Henry (Everyone In LA); Linda de Vries (Whittier resident); Joseph Estrada (Megan’s Helping Hands); Alex Contreras (CA Yimby); Monica M. Arellano (unincorporated Whittier resident); Andrew Roble (Whittier resident); and, Susan Cameron (Homes For Whittier), who is a contributing editor for Sustainable City News.
The petition was online for 72 hours and had gathered 517 signatures at the time it was submitted to City Council. Comments from residents on the petition included, “I’ve been forced off of my job and am concerned about my next paycheck”, “We need to protect our most vulnerable”, and “I’m signing this because I am going through this right now and it’s scary and stressful. When people are already struggling and then begin to get themselves back on their feet, then your employer notifies you that the company is closing its doors because they lost 90% of their business and couldn’t afford to keep us. Then to make things worse one receives a 3-day notice. It’s heartbreaking…”
“[This petition was] about keeping people in the homes and places they are now,” said Pam Teeter, Community Outreach Coordinator for First United Methodist. Teeter represents the church on the coalition.“I think just to be a voice for the residents, and a united front,” said Teeter as she hoped for the Council to see the need and common sense in this recommendation.
This coalition is not solely concerned with the eviction moratorium, however. Teeter expressed the coalition’s concern that so many are crowded together at Whittier’s First Day shelter, making it a hotbed for potential infection. Likewise, at Tuesday’s Council meeting, Councilmember Henry Bouchot described First Day’s space for social distancing being limited to three feet, not the recommended six. Public handwashing stations and portable toilets as well as overcrowding at First Day were discussed under item 13A on Tuesday night’s agenda, but without decisive conclusions.
“A lot of the things that we’re recommending actually behoove the city to take on because the cost to the city would be lower,” Teeter said. “I’m hoping, I’m really hoping [the online petition] has an impact. When we discussed doing it, we felt that it would have an impact, and our city leaders would have to hear us out.”
Bouchot expressed concern that council members who own rental property in the City of Whittier would have a conflict of interest in voting on an eviction moratorium. Four of the five Council members (Joe Vinatieri, Cathy Warner, Josue Alvarado, and Bouchot) shared that they own rental property in the city of Whittier. Fernando Dutra does not. Adams and City Attorney Dick Jones waived this conflict of interest. If four members of Council had recused themselves, Council would not have achieved quorum, preventing a vote.
During the course of the discussion, Alvarado said he would vote no on the eviction moratorium, endorsing the protection of landlords. Alvarado questioned why this moratorium needed to be enacted, and asked who would help the landlords. He questioned the time frame of the proposal, asking why a judge could not decide on a case by case basis. “The reality is that if you don’t put that in, it really has no value, because you’re trying to create a protection for the tenants,” City Attorney Jones said.
“Right now some of us are talking about this in terms almost as if this was a situation of people really not wanting to pay their bills,” Bouchot said. “I think the reality is that we are getting in a situation where many people will not be able to pay their monthly rent. Whether that’s commercial rent or a residential rent, and particularly on the residential side we have to be concerned about this as a public safety and a public health matter.”
Adams dismissed the idea that the moratorium would be abused frivolously, “In order for someone to qualify…from being evicted they would have to do several things: they would have to provide the landlord [notice] in writing before the rent is due.” Tenants negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis will need to produce verifiable evidence to the loss of income, and will commit to a timetable to pay the back rent.
Public comments revealed that not all stakeholders were relieved by the new ordinance. “Reading through the ordinance it falls short of helping us through this unfortunate global disaster. Forgiving rent and not being evicted is great, thank you, but you are making LAW that we have to pay back all past rent in 120 days!” Spin Lounge owner Rick Gonzales said in an electronically submitted Public Comment. “After this hell has passed you have proposed for us to start paying back almost double rent. That will undoubtedly sink us…” Gonzales is not alone; owners of such local businesses as The 6740 / Modern Shaman and The Chicken Koop expressed similar objections to the 120-day repayment plan.
However, the ordinance does not stop other arrangements from being negotiated, and does not stop courts or arbitrators from ordering repayment plans in any case that may come up after the crisis. It prevents landlords from evicting tenants if tenants comply with these criteria.
Things are changing daily because of the virus. At least until May 31, Whittierites do not have to worry about themselves or their neighbors being evicted.
Photo: Louis Rico