Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Talk to San Francisco tenants rights attorney Joe Tobener these days, and you’ll immediately be seized by a sense of impending rental market doom. 

Shit is Now Very Real!” reads the subject line of an email he sent out to members of his law firm on Tuesday, April 28, only days before May’s rent is due. 

“This is so sad and overwhelming!” the email reads. “We are now getting flooded with calls from tenants who can’t pay rent (residential and commercial). We have been giving everyone free consults so far, but we cannot handle the volume. Suggestions? We could set up a hotline with big tech funding. We could try to recruit lawyers to volunteer. Ideas?” 

Tobener is not being melodramatic. Every front-line tenant group we contacted is experiencing the same flood of calls, almost all from tenants fearful about not being able to pay their rent tomorrow, May 1.  

Pedro Garcia has lived in the same Mission District apartment for the last 19 years. It’s a two-bedroom that he pays $1042.80 for, on the 2nd of every month. He’s been unable to work, and now his car is broken, so even his son cannot make money as a food deliveryman. 

In May, he’ll need an extension. 

“I’m going to talk to the owner on the second,” he said, explaining that he had $2,000 savings at the beginning [of the crisis] but with the bills and surprise car repairs, not much is left.

“A lot of people have run through their savings who spent it on rent last month or on food,” said Deepa Varma, the executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, “and they’re saying they don’t know how long this is going to go on.” 

Varma said the Tenants Union call volume has doubled to as many as 200 a day. 

The two most common scenarios lawyers are hearing: 1. People hoping to break their lease agreements so they can live with their families, but who are liable for the remainder of the lease’s rent, and; 2. people who cannot pay and have nowhere else to go. 

“Tenants should be allowed to break their lease,” Tobener said. “It’s not fair to people who have lost their jobs who now have to be on the hook for the full lease.”  

Californians cannot be evicted for not paying rent as long as the state stay-at-home order remains in place, and very likely for 90 days after it is lifted, per an emergency order by the state Judicial Council

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed placed a moratorium on most evictions, which expires six months after the emergency order is lifted — right now, Nov. 22. It directs renters who cannot pay due to the impacts of COVID-19 to notify their landlords, and urges landlords and tenants to set up a payment plan. 

But what happens when that grace period ends? Or if there’s no foreseeable income? 

Generally, the consensus among tenant and landlord attorneys is to reach a fair agreement with your landlord if you’re unable to pay. Jeff Woo, a landlord attorney, said landlords don’t know what to do about tenants who have lost their jobs and cannot make rent. 

“My advice has been to work hard to work it out with them,” he said, noting the Judicial Council order. “If [an agreement is] not worked out, all it’s doing is exacerbating the problem on both sides, and makes a much bigger conflict once the order is lifted.”  

But tenant lawyers warn tenants not to sign anything. And if you do plan on signing something, talk to a lawyer. 

“Tenants we know are getting confronted with these garbage repayment agreements that people are feeling stressed out they have to sign,” said Ryan Murphy, the supervising litigating attorney at the Eviction Defense Collaborative. “People don’t have to sign those … if you send a letter to your landlord asserting rights under the San Francisco guidelines.” 

Varma agreed, warning of entering into forbearance and deferral agreements. 

“It doesn’t make sense to agree to something before you know what you can promise,” she said. “Forbearance agreements are probably a bad idea. If tenants can’t make whole rent, or if they don’t think they can make rent next month, or if it’s a serious compromise to their health to make rent, it might make sense to hold onto your money.” 

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, said the organization is receiving a high volume of calls as May approaches, mostly from people who have been laid off and cannot pay rent. He reminds them to follow the mayor’s guidelines, although some say their landlords have been asking for bank statements and asking them to sign agreements. 

“That’s not allowed under the moratorium,” he said. “You don’t have to give out employers’ phone numbers. You don’t need to sign addendums to the lease.”  

For the most part, people seem to have been able to pay rent in the month of April. A survey by the San Francisco Apartment Association of 315 landlords controlling 10,377 apartments citywide in mid-April showed that only 6 percent of renters were unable to pay all or part of their April rent. 

“However, with a significant number of San Franciscans unable to work for all of April, we expect to see a substantial increase in residents unable to pay rent,” said Charley Goss, the association’s director of government and community affairs. 

“We expect this to be a very difficult situation for everybody involved,” he added. “If a renter is unable to pay their rent, more often than not, a housing provider isn’t able to pay their mortgage and many local housing providers could be looking at foreclosure or financial insolvency if this continues for much longer.” 

Tobener called the relatively low percentage of renters unable to pay rent in April — which is also reflected in national numbers showing that 91 percent of renters made full or partial rent this month — “old news.” 

Generally, “people have savings for one month’s rent,” he said. “May is going to be a different story.” 

Alejandra Garcia, who lives in a one-bedroom Mission District apartment with her 14-year-old daughter, has no savings. Garcia — no relation to Pedro Garcia — was let go from her job as a restaurant cashier in mid-March, and received help from Catholic Charities to pay April’s rent. She hopes they’ll be able to help her this month as well. 

Garcia is aware of San Francisco’s eviction moratorium, but unsure how it will work for her.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve been hearing it’s a moratorium, and they’ll give a chance to pay it off once this crisis ends,” she said. “But how am I going to pay it back? I don’t have a job. A lot of families are like this. We’re frustrated and we’re scared.”  

Lydia Chávez contributed reporting. 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. Didnt anyone who applied for unemployement also get PUA of $600 per week? The gentleman with a $1100 appx rent cannot use that $2400 in PUA (not including any unemployment he can claim) and his co-habitants (also getting $2400/month) cannot pay their rent? I am missing something I think.

  2. The unemployment system is dysfunctional. The ruling party is not interested in helping people because they think the people will not go back to work if money is paid. They are trying to reopen the country without any preparation. We are getting into a very difficult situation.

  3. TJ: What low rent? What are you talking about. Bay area rents, specially in San Francisco are through the roof; most renters have to pay 60%-70% of their income for rent in Bay area. It is time for reality check; these rents are far too high and have to drop by at 40%-50%.

    1. The problem is that some tenants who have lived 20-30 years with rents of 1000 or less for 2 bedrooms, have 2-3 roommates charging them more that the landlord charges under rent control. I am in such a situation and the “master” tenant — my roomate — is charging me 1200 for the rent of a room and I found out from a letter left out accidentally in the kitchen that the rent he pays the landlord was just raised to 1020.00. So that means I am paying 180 more than the entire place rents out for. He’s charging my other roommate 1200 too, so he is making 1380 a month and not paying rent himself! I asked the Rent Board and found out that this is illegal, but I can’t complain or even talk to the landlord to get proof of the actual rent rate because technically I am not a tenant, and the rent board said the most I can get is a refund of the overage of rent paid based on percentage of use of the place (which has to be determined and arbitrated in a hearing), and then the MASTER can just kick me out for any ol’ reason. When I went to look for a new place to prepare for the fight ahead, the rents are very high … 3000 for the same kind of space. When I asked the leasing agent why prices were so high he asked me what i paid and said that rent controlled units in her building mean that the landlord must charge higher to maintain the building in good shape. Other units paid 800-1500, and a plumber charges 300, electrician 600, painter 500 etc so new renters subsidize rent protected tenants. Sound to me that rent control is a problem for new tenants like me too! This is all too unfair.

  4. Breaking your lease is probably the fairest solution. It means you have to move out, of course. But at least you are not accruing debt. And some of these tenants have had low rent for many years and so have done well.

  5. No doubt that some renters are in between a rock and a hard place. But why doesn’t this article have any mention of the programs meant to push money to people who can’t work right now, such as the one-time checks and the greatly boosted UI payments? These kinds of articles make it seem like the sky is falling on everybody when the sky is really only falling on segments of everybody. Let’s focus on those segments and how to help them, rather than go immediately to general prescriptions like “Rent Strike!” and cancelling all “rent debt”.

  6. Good Article.

    I’m not yet there, but I’m worried about this stuff happening to me too. I’ve also got to fix my car, the check engine light is on, and the engine burbs, but I’m afraid to spend money to fix it. Plus I’m not driving anyway. I lost both my jobs. I went to the food bank for the first time ever. I’ve applied for unemployment, but don’t know what happening with the application, I called more than a dozen time. My fear is unemployment will say my application is “lost in the mail” or something, and start I and I won’t get any help. Some people won’t get unemployment, how could they manage.