Santa Ana Tenants Confront Mounting Eviction Threats Amid Looming Expiration of Citywide Renter Protections

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

One undocumented grandmother in her 40s, who requested anonymity, fears what will happen when citywide eviction protections in Santa Ana disappear by the end of the month.

For the past four months in Santa Ana, one thing tempering low-income tenants’ anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing business shutdowns was the reassurance they wouldn’t be evicted under a citywide renter protection. 

That’s set to end on July 28.

Meanwhile, some tenants who spoke to Voice of OC claim some landlords have already ramped up harassment as the deadline approaches and activists fear a looming wave of eviction notices is on the horizon if city council members don’t take action to extend protections.  

It’s unclear whether Santa Ana City Council members — none of whom responded to requests for comment — will step up with a solution.

The next public city council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday and so far no council member has proposed anything relevant to the issue.

City officials got in front of the problem back on March 19 with an order meant to bar landlords from serving tenants with eviction notices amid the financial difficulties facing residents during the pandemic, a move bolstered by a statewide mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

On June 30, the city extended that ban through the end of July.

The citywide order doesn’t legally waive tenants’ unpaid rent, and tenants are left with up to six months following expiration of the order to repay any back rent due. 

Landlords under the order can’t legally evict tenants who’ve shown financial hardship during the pandemic for non-payment, nor can they charge late fees.

Low-income renters in the city, many undocumented residents, speaking to Voice of OC, say they’re now faced with thousands of dollars in back rent owed while their incomes have been slashed due to the pandemic’s hit to the businesses they work at. 

One undocumented grandmother in her 40s says her landlord has threatened to call the cops, change the locks, and throw her stuff out of her apartment — all despite the citywide evictions ban in place and, at the same time, she and the landlord had already come to an agreement that by August she would pay the $3,600 in back rent she owed for the time period where public stay-home orders had put her out of work earlier this year.

And much of the money she makes now from her two new jobs, she said, still goes to her monthly rent.

One undocumented renter in his 50s, who also asked to remain anonymous, said one of his greatest fears is that his landlord — who he said once threatened his family with eviction after asking for another air conditioning fan in their unit — will call immigration authorities on him, adding that he has two young kids with special needs and that his 5-year-old daughter can’t eat solid food.

“A lot of undocumented people are getting taken advantage of,” he said through a translator on July 15. “I pay my taxes. I get money deducted every week from my paycheck.”

Local renter advocate Mextli Lopez fears what will happen when the eviction ban expires.

Already, she said her renter advocacy group Tenants United has received calls from residents in the city claiming they were improperly locked out of their apartments.

“What we’re seeing right now is people are getting served notice via text or over phone, which isn’t legal, and they’re being told things like, ‘you have to leave by tomorrow’ or ‘if you don’t pay me this amount of money, I’m gonna go in and check the locks,’” Lopez said on Thursday. 

She added: “I’m really nervous for what happens when the protection order expires.”

Property owner representatives, on the other hand, say landlords are facing financial troubles as well.

“Not all of our members (landlords) have the financial wherewithal to be able to support tenants at this time. Just like every tenant may have a different situation, every landlord has a different situation,” said Victor Cao, Vice President of Public Affairs at the California Apartment Association.

Cao’s association represents landlords up and down the state, and Cao has been a frequent presence at Santa Ana meetings during policy discussions around rent and property. His group in May had unsuccessfully pushed for the City Council to reverse a freeze on rent increases in the city, which prompted uproar among residents and tenants’ rights activists.

He pointed out that the California Judicial Council — the statewide policymaking arm for courts — has stated that no eviction will be acted upon for 90 days after the expiration of the statewide eviction ban under Newsom. 

“That gives an estimated time frame for tenants and landlords in terms of whether an eviction is happening or not … best case scenario up to November 26,” he said. “At the same time it’s very frustrating for landlords.” 

Cao said he wouldn’t dismiss claims by tenants that they may be harassed, adding that his group advises landlords against practices like landlords locking their tenants out, an illegal practice known as “self-help eviction.” 

If there is a place for common ground, Cao said, “it’s that we have supported and advocated for more state and federal aid for people.” 

Aside from a rent control measure that activists have been pushing for years in the city, Lopez and her group are also advocating for a renters’ right to sue ordinance, which would lay out tenants’ ability to take legal action against landlords proven to have violated the emergency eviction ban. 

She said the ordinance her group proposed — or even simply extending the eviction ban — are “actionable options the council could take on immediately.”

Both renters who spoke to Voice of OC said it’s more options than they themselves have.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.