Tenants Protections for All: Renters are a Just Cause the Legislature Needs to Support

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

by William Wilcox

Each year about 500,000 people in California are evicted from their homes through the court system. However, advocates believe another 500,000 Californians are involuntarily displaced without going through the courts, often because they lack knowledge of their rights or do not want to be permanently blacklisted as a tenant after being evicted. Month-to-month tenancies can be ended at any time, for any reason by landlords in California as long they provide 60 days notice (if the tenant has been there less than a year, only 30 days is required), unless the tenant is covered by other protections that require a “just cause” for eviction. 

Just cause eviction protections are legal safeguards that say a landlord may only evict a tenant for “cause” such as not paying rent, materially breaking the lease, or being a nuisance tenant. The types of households covered by these ordinances varies across the 24 cities in California that have just cause eviction protections. A review of ordinances from San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego showed that while allowable reasons for eviction are all somewhat similar, other cities require 2 years of occupancy to qualify, some only cover units built before a certain date, and San Diego protects renters in single family homes, while others only cover multi-family buildings. Just cause eviction protections, unlike rent control, are not limited in single family homes by the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act

Just cause protections work and keep families in their homes. I used data on housing policies for municipalities across California from the Terner Center Land Use Survey (TCLUS), municipal level data on court ordered evictions from the Eviction Lab, and the American Communities Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau to analyze the effect of just cause eviction protections on evictions and eviction filings from 2000-2016. The analysis showed that just cause eviction protections are associated with a 15% decrease in the eviction rate as well as an average of 266 fewer evictions in a given city. To ensure this analysis was robust, I used nearest neighbor propensity score matching to compare cities with similar characteristics such as number of rental units, share of housing built before 1970, multi-family share of housing stock, and median rent. Other research utilizing different methods (difference in difference across multiple cities) had similar findings. 

In 2019, California passed AB 1482, which extended just cause rent protections to tenants in multi-family housing that is 15 years or older across the state and single family homes owned by a corporation (estimated to be only 2% of home sales). Then in 2020 to assist tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic, AB 3088 was passed, which extended those same just cause protections to all tenants in California until January 31, 2021. However, after that tenants in multi-family buildings less than 15 years old and most all single family homes will no longer have these important protections. 

According to the most recent census data, there are 1.95 million renter households throughout California who live in single family homes, making up 34% of all tenants. The most optimistic assumption would only make 10% of single family homes (195,000) covered by AB 1482, and it is likely the number is far less. That means there are at least 1.75 million renters in single family homes across California who are not covered by AB1482. There are also 530,000 rental units that were built after 2005 whose tenants are not protected by current regulations, 383,000 of whom are in multi-family buildings. So at minimum current laws leave 2.14 million households unprotected by just cause eviction rights. This does not include an estimated 230,000 renters in duplexes that are not covered if the owner occupies the other unit on-site (census data does not allow one to determine which duplexes are owner occupied).

I have spent years volunteering on tenants’ rights hotlines in both California and New York. No normal tenant searching for a place to live assumes the type of building they live in, or that its construction date will affect their rights. These distinctions are arbitrary and random to tenants across the state until they are unfairly targeted by their landlord. Civil rights shouldn’t vary based on who owns a home or what kind of structure tenants live in. 

When the California State Legislature resumes session in January they must permanently extend just cause protections to all tenants going forward, as they already have currently under AB 3088. In the long-term, this will fairly ensure rights for all tenants across California, as well as provide one line of defense against the predicted tsunami of evictions as local, state and federal eviction moratoriums dissipate. Analysis from Santa Clara County believes there could be a 16-fold increase in evictions and a 133-225% increase in homelessness. As of August, there are 590,000 renter households in California who are behind on rent at this time with 42% of them (250,740) saying they believe they will be evicted in the next 2 months. Over 40% of renters behind on payments live in single family homes and will thus not have just cause rental protections after January 30, 2021. Now more than ever California must protect tenants, regardless of what kind of building they live in or how old it is. 

William Wilcox is a 2020 graduate of the Goldman School of Public Policy Masters of Public Policy program where he completed his capstone about affordable housing tax-exempt bond finance policy for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Prior to graduate school he worked in homeless services and eviction prevention in New York City. He now works in affordable housing finance consulting in San Francisco and is also a tenants’ rights hotline volunteer for Tenants Together, assisting tenants across California. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.