City Shields Businesses, Renters From Eviction

Mirroring actions in other cities, South Pasadena officials moved forward with an emergency declaration last week, and went on to establish measures to protect residential and commercial tenants from eviction.
The extraordinary steps were prompted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to alter all facets of society as governments ramp up tactics to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the wake of rising death tolls and the specter of overwhelmed hospitals. For example, Los Angeles County officials decreed late last week that all “nonessential” retail businesses in the county close, an order that leaves only choice service providers open for business at the moment.
South Pasadena’s council voted unanimously to approve the emergency declaration, which grants the city manager emergency powers over a variety of city functions. Then, given the increasing vulnerability of residents who are now out of work and business owners without revenue streams, the panel voted 4-1 to prohibit evictions on the basis of late rent payments for at least two months.
“I have no doubt that we’re going to see a lot of effort put in — bailouts from the state, bailouts from the feds — and I have had commitments from my contacts in the state Legislature that we’re going to do what we need to do to make people whole after this,” Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian, a physician, said at March 18’s meeting. “I don’t doubt that there will be efforts to stop foreclosures. The way that I’m seeing this going, it’s going to take awhile. There’s a lot of anxiety, but for now, what can we do today to relieve that anxiety and to give people some sense of relief?”
Mayor Pro Tem Diana Mahmud opposed implementing the eviction moratorium as written, largely on the basis of protecting owners of smaller rental properties who depend on the income to fund mortgages and other general expenses. The county or state, she added, is likely to implement its own measures to prevent late-payment evictions.
“Things are happening so quickly that I’m concerned that tenants are going to get a notion of false relief,” Mahmud said. “We need our tenants to talk to their landlords. We need our tenants to communicate to them what resources they have. Those resources may change if, as I anticipate, the resources from the federal and state government come forward.”
Mahmud, a former prosecutor, added that she was confident no evictions would occur because the courts are presently focusing resources away from civil matters to handle criminal proceedings.
“At this point, realistically, with a 60-day maximum duration presently, there is no way that a tenant is going to be forced to leave their home within this period, because of the backlog and because the Los Angeles Superior Court is entirely closed up until April 16,” she explained. “Even if a landlord files, the court won’t actually hear an unlawful detainer action until sometime after that.”
City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe initially recommended holding off on the eviction moratorium because she expected the county or state to take similar action and also because that specific item was added to the emergency declaration resolution only about 24 hours prior to the meeting.
“I think having this action taken on a countywide basis is potentially even better than doing it on a patchwork of city actions,” DeWolfe added.
Public comment, made in person by a handful of residents and in a flurry of emails to city officials, was largely in favor of enacting the moratorium.
“Everybody is going to be affected by the economic slowdown, so let’s help those that are the neediest,” Laurie Wheeler, president and CEO of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, told the council. “This shouldn’t be a pass for anyone to stop paying rent. Tenants that can should be able to continue paying rent so that buildings can remain open and support for essential services — medical providers, supermarkets — can continue.”
Councilman Richard Schneider, also a physician, acknowledged that the county was likely to handle the issue, but said the city should make a gesture of good faith to its residents at the very least.
“We want to have a compassionate resolution that will protect our renters in case our county doesn’t come through,” said Schneider, who participated remotely. “I don’t see any hazards in having our resolution go forward in case the county does not pass their resolution. We can always seek to have a special meeting and amend it if necessary, but I think for this short time period, we will give the community the idea that we are working to help prevent the eviction of renters, and I think that would go a long way to satisfying public opinion.”
Councilman Michael Cacciotti added a stipulation that the city urge state officials to consider various methods of financial relief for Californians who are suddenly out of work and whose businesses have been forced to close. Part of Cacciotti’s amendment was that the council be updated on this within 30 days.
Meanwhile, DeWolfe’s emergency powers will allow her the authority to take a variety of actions to comply with superseding directives from county or state authorities without having to necessarily seek council approval. It will also ensure the city can apply for necessary emergency funding if needed.
“This does put us in a better position to accept state and federal funding should it become available as part of the emergency,” she said. “The resolution also includes a number of other things that allow us to provide a greater level of protection and service to our residents.”