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California courts eye ending rental, eviction protections

Posted at 4:47 AM, Jun 10, 2020

California judicial leaders are considering an early end to statewide emergency orders suspending foreclosures and evictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move is prompting objections from lawmakers and advocates that they may be acting too soon and disproportionately harming minorities in the midst of civil unrest over the deaths of black people at the hands of police.

The state’s Judicial Council in early April delayed all eviction cases from moving forward as one of 13 steps responding to the pandemic. Among others was setting bail statewide at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to reduce the population in jails, for fear they would become hotbeds of infections.

Council members, who comprise the rule-making arm of the judicial system, are to finish voting Wednesday on whether to lift three of the rules as California reduces stay-at-home orders that helped slow the spread of the virus.

The rules protecting delinquent renters and homeowners would end Aug. 3, while the bail order would end June 20. The council initially said the orders would stay in place for 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifts the emergency declaration that he issued in early March, a decision that could be at least months away.

“They’re actively contributing to racial injustice” if they lift the orders, argued Matthew Warren, a staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, noting that minorities are more likely to be employed in service jobs and laid off during the pandemic.

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju similarly objected that ending the bail order “will disproportionately devastate communities of color.”

Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco was among those saying the council is acting too soon, while “millions of Californians are hanging on by a thread financially.”

Chiu and advocates said the court orders would end before the Legislature can consider enacting its own protections. They plan to announce legislation Wednesday they said would make sure Californians can keep their housing during the economic downturn.

The council said it was acting in response to Newsom’s decision to allow most counties to lift some isolation orders, and in anticipation that lawmakers will act.

Now that there are numerous variations by county, “a statewide rule no longer serves our need to be flexible and responsive based on local health conditions,” council administrator Martin Hoshino said in a statement.

Warren countered that many people still can’t pay their rents or mortgages.

“We don’t want to see mass evictions take place like the sort we’re expecting right now,” Warren said. “It’s going to be a disaster.”

He cited a projection by UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy that 365,000 rental households are in danger of eviction in Los Angeles County alone.

“A disproportionate number of those are among people of color,” he said.

California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon said most of the state’s major cities still have bans on evicting those affected by the pandemic. The Judicial Council “did just one big blanket cutoff,” he said, applying it to all evictions regardless of whether it was related to the virus and regardless of whether the eviction would have been for nonpayment or because the tenant is a nuisance.

Ending the order would put decisions back in the hands of judges at a time when many landlords also are hurting financially, he said.

The bail order kept 20,000 suspects out of jail while they await trial, the council said. Justice Marsha Slough, a member of the council, in a statement urged local courts to continue using the emergency bail schools as needed.

Eric Nuñez, president of the state’s police chiefs’ association, praised the reconsideration, noting that chiefs had serious concerns that the bail rule “would result in inappropriate early release of potentially dangerous offenders and those who would continue to reoffend if not held accountable.”

A number of law enforcement leaders publicized cases where suspects were released without bail and quickly arrested again. Slough and Raju countered that crime rates have not notably increased.

Jonathan Underland, spokesman for the End Money Bail campaign, said the zero bail order would end “at a time when the racial and economic injustice of wealth-based incarceration is crystal clear, and Californians can see it’s time to finally replace the money bail system with one based on public safety.”

Voters will have the chance in November to consider a ballot measure that would decide that issue.