Ameliorating the Post-COVID-19 Rental Debt Burden on California Renters

Image by Saru Robert via Unsplash

By Asha DuMonthier

Ameliorating the Post-COVID-19 Rental Debt Burden on California Renters

Imagine a California renter who lost her job exactly one year ago in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Let’s call her Sara. Sara was not able to pay her rent for the past year, but was able to stay in her apartment thanks to the state’s eviction moratorium. She applied for jobs for months on end, and finally got lucky this month due to the re-opening of restaurants in her county. She’s able to start paying her rent again in April. But here’s the bad news — Sara only has three months’ time during which she can attempt to pay back twelve months’ rent with her new income before her landlord can sue her in court.

Hundreds of thousands of California renters are at risk of being saddled with debilitating debts from back rent following the COVID-19 crisis. California’s eviction moratorium protects renters from eviction for failure to pay rent due to financial hardship related to COVID-19 between March 1st, 2020 and June 30th, 2021. Beginning August 1, 2021, however, landlords may bring a civil lawsuit for debt collection to recover any unpaid rents in court, “regardless of the amount demanded,” until July 1, 2025.[1] Landlords can seek to obtain an enforceable judgment that then accrues interest at 10 percent per year.[2]

So the question is how much do California renters owe? Predicting the magnitude of the rent debt that California tenants face is challenging because of the ongoing uncertainty that the pandemic imposes on the economy and the lack of robust, up-to-date data on California renters’ finances. However, analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) offers some insight.

  • How many renters are behind on rent?

One of every six California renter households was not caught up on rent by mid-February, 2021 (Table 1).[3] In other words, almost one million households are behind on rent.[4]

Table 1: Percent of renter households behind on rent among the three most populated Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), mid-February, 2021

Los Angeles22%
San Francisco17%
Other MSAs12%

Note: Calculations use household weights to adjust the sample responses to the broader population.
Source: Household Pulse Survey Public Use File: February 3–15

  • Which renters are struggling the most?

Renters across the income distribution are behind. However, lower-income households are feeling it most. Half of households that were behind on rent had 2019 pre-tax household incomes that were less than $50,000. This is unsurprising given that lower income households were more likely to have experienced a household job loss since the start of the pandemic.

Table 2: CA Renter Households by Income, February 2021

2019 Pre-tax Household IncomeBehind on RentAt least one household job loss since March 13, 2020
Less than $25,00023%73%
$25,000 – $34,99921%67%
$35,000 – $49,99924%58%
$50,000 – $74,99912%57%
$75,000 – $99,99917%47%
$100,000 – $149,9999%50%
$150,000 – $199,9994%34%
$200,000 and above1%34%

Note: Calculations use household weights to adjust the sample responses to the broader population.
Source: Household Pulse Survey Public Use File: February 3–15

  • How much do renters owe?

The data indicate that a substantial group of renters has been behind on rent for several months (Chart 1). Two-thirds of households that were behind on rent reported having little to no confidence that they would be able to pay the following month’s rent payment on time (about 653,000 households; Chart 2).

Chart 1: Percent of renters who reported that their household was currently caught up on rent payments, April 23, 2020–March 1, 2021

Note: Each “week” refers to two-week periods.
Source: Household Pulse Survey Data Tables

Chart 2: CA Renter Household Confidence in Ability to Pay Next Month’s Rent, February 2021

Note: Calculations use household weights to adjust the sample responses to the broader population.
Source: Household Pulse Survey Public Use File: February 3 – February 15

Let’s think back to Sara who was paying California’s median gross rent ($1,429) prior to the pandemic.[5] She lost all of her household income in March 2020. Between March 2020 and March 2021, she got a new job and was able to start paying rent again, but was only able to pay the 25 percent of rent required by California’s eviction moratorium and thus accumulated $17,040 in rent debt. In the most populated parts of the state, renters would likely owe more (Table 4).

Table 4: Estimated rental debt for one household after twelve months of missed rental payments, by Metropolitan Statistical Area

San Francisco$37,039
San Jose$36,252
Los Angeles$30,349
San Diego$28,048

Note: Assumes fees are charged at a 5 percent simple interest rate for each month that rent is late. Median market rate rents were based on September 2020 Zillow data.

  • How much debt are California renters facing altogether?

Researchers’ estimates of the total scale of rent debt in California range from $400 million to $8 billion.[6] It’s impossible to know the true scale of rent debt without knowing how many tenants have accessed protection under California’s eviction moratorium rather than being evicted or voluntary leaving, how many months tenants are behind on rent, how many renters will receive relief through state or federal relief programs, as well as other factors such as where renters live and the local cost of living, access to good jobs, and more. We can, however, come up with an estimate.

Let’s assume that the households that are behind on rent, have little to no confidence that they will make rent on time next month, and that report no current employment are the households most likely to be behind on rent for multiple months and accumulate rental debt. Altogether these households compose 8 percent of California renter households (about 447,000 households). If half of these households are not able to pay rent for 12 months, assuming all of them pay the statewide gross median rent and are charged 5 percent simple interest, the total accumulated rental debt across the state would be $3.8 billion.

  • What does all this debt this mean for renters?

Accruing rental debt can be deadly for renters’ financial and housing stability. If renters are not able to pay judgments in court, they may be subject to wage garnishment, suspension of professional or driver’s licenses, and damaged credit scores.[7] Even if landlords do not choose to take legal action against tenants, landlords often refer unpaid rent to debt collectors, who regularly report to credit bureaus.[8] Negative entries on a credit report can last for seven years and damage individuals’ credit score, which can make it difficult to access credit or even secure a job.[9] Many landlords and property managers run credit reports or rental payment history screenings before renting to new tenants, meaning that a lowered credit score or uneven history of rental payments may make it more difficult to secure stable housing.[10] Ironically, therefore, California tenants who received protection from the COVID Tenant Relief Act may end up facing barriers to securing stable housing long-term as a result of the law.

  • What can be done?

The federal government allocated $2.6 billion to California in Emergency Rental Assistance funds in January 2021[11] and recently earmarked an additional $2.2 billion in rental assistance for the state within the American Rescue Plan.[12] The state and local governments are responsible for disbursing these funds. So far, programs in California feature a wide variety of different requirements for tenants and landlords in order to receive assistance and it is unclear how many renters will benefit and how much aid tenants will receive.[13] In the state’s program, for example, landlords are required to be willing to waive up to 20 percent of unpaid rent, or else renters are only eligible to receive 25 percent of unpaid rent.[14] Given the uncertainty regarding which tenants will receive aid and how much assistance they will receive, the following measures are necessary to ameliorate the impact of rent debt on California’s renters:

  1. Provide renters with a grace period of at least two years to pay back rent: Two years’ grace period following the expiry of the statewide eviction moratorium would provide renters with the minimum amount of time they would need to save money to pay back rent debt while also keeping up with their current rental payments.[15] Legislators included this in the first draft of the eviction moratorium —let’s bring it back![16]
  2. Protect renters’ credit by regulating information about rent debt: Landlords should be prohibited from reporting unpaid rent to credit bureaus. Oregon has already done it, so it may be possible despite concerns of preemption due to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.[17] If policy experts determine that prohibiting reporting unpaid rent to credit bureaus is preempted, policymakers can at least extend the current provision masking rent debt civil cases, to make it permanent rather than expiring at the end of the eviction moratorium. Taking these steps could prevent hundreds of thousands of renters bearing rent debt from having their credit scores damaged and being at heightened risk of housing and financial instability for years to come.
  3. Develop community-based enforcement mechanisms to protect tenants’ rights. California’s revised eviction moratorium (SB 91) includes a provision that landlords and tenant screening agencies may not use COVID-19 related rental debt as a negative factor when evaluating prospective housing applications or as the basis for refusing to rent to tenants. However, the means to enforce this provision are uncertain. Policymakers should work with community-based organizations representing tenants to develop mechanisms to ensure that tenants can protect themselves against discrimination.

By the end of February 2021, almost one million (994,000) renter households were behind on rent. Without intervention, it is likely that renters will accumulate between $2 billion and $8 billion of rent debt by mid-2021. This rent debt will have negative multiplier effects on renters’ financial and housing stability by impeding their ability to recover financially from COVID-19, damaging their credit scores, and making it more difficult to secure housing for years to come. In order to prevent this grim future, California policymakers should intervene by protecting renters’ credit through providing renters with a grace period of at least two years to pay back rent, regulating information about rent debt, and creating ways to enforce tenants’ rights. These are not the only policy interventions needed to protect renters and secure financial security for vulnerable Californians. However, they are interventions that are likely to prevent the worst effects of the rent debt that is looming at the expiry of the eviction moratorium’s protections.

Asha DuMonthier is a second year Master of Public Policy student focused on labor, housing policy, and economic justice. Prior to coming to Berkeley she was an organizer and researcher in campaigns to raise standards for workers in emerging industries in the Bay Area and around the country.

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.

[1] California Senate, “SB-91 COVID-19 Relief: Tenancy: Federal Rental Assistance.,” accessed March 19, 2021,

[2] California Courts. “Pay Your Judgment.” California Courts | The Judicial Branch of California, 2020.

[3] U.S. Census Bureau. “Household Pulse Survey Data Tables.” Accessed December 5, 2020.

[4] Using the 2018 5-year American Community Survey estimates of renter occupied household units in California (about 5.9 million), 994,415 households are behind on rent.

[5] Median gross rent in California from 2014-2018 according to the American Community Survey.

[6] Assembly Committee on Appropriations. “SB 1410 (Caballero) – As Amended August 5, 2020.” California Legislative Information, August 18, 2020.; Gabriel Petek, “How Has COVID-19 Affected Renters and Homeowners?,” Legislative Analayst’s Office, January 19, 2021,; PolicyLink, “Fact Sheet: Covid-19 Evictions in California,” Bay Area Equity Atlas, 2021,; Stout Risius Ross, LLC, “Estimation of Households Experiencing Rental Shortfall and Potentially Facing Eviction,” Stout, 2020,;

[7] California Courts. “Pay Your Judgement.” California Courts | The Judicial Branch of California, 2020.

[8] National Consumer Law Center. “Salt in the Wound: How Eviction Records and Back Rent Haunt Tenant Screening Reports and Credit Scores.” NCLC, August 2020.

[9] DeMatteo, Megan. “These Are the Biggest Disadvantages of Having a Bad Credit Score.” CNBC, March 27, 2020, sec. Select: Resources.

[10] National Consumer Law Center. “Salt in the Wound: How Eviction Records and Back Rent Haunt Tenant Screening Reports and Credit Scores.” NCLC, August 2020.

[11] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Payments to States and Eligible Units of Local Government” (Emergency Rental Assistance Program, January 26, 2021),

[12] California Apartment Association, “New Stimulus Plan Has $2.2 Billion in Rental Assistance for California,” California Apartment Association, March 8, 2021,

[13] National Low Income Housing Coalition, “NLIHC COVID-19 Rental Assistance Database,” Google Docs, March 22, 2021,

[14] Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, “California’s COVID-19 Rent Relief,”, 2021,

[15] Building off of the situation described earlier, a tenant who owed about $17,000 in back rent by the expiry of the eviction moratorium, but had recently started working full-time earning minimum wage and bringing in about $2,400 per month in income would need about 18 months in order to pay a monthly rent of $1,450 on time and save enough to pay back their rental debt, assuming that they had no other living expenses and were not charged interest or late fees beyond 12 months.

[16] California Assembly, “AB-828 Temporary Moratorium on Foreclosures and Unlawful Detainer Actions: Coronavirus (COVID-19).,” accessed March 19, 2021,

[17] City of Portland, Oregon. “Oregon Eviction Moratorium FAQ.”, 2020.