In a unanimous vote Tuesday afternoon, March 24, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved an urgency ordinance that suspends the eviction of tenants for failing to pay rent. The ordinance applies to cases in which a tenant’s failure to pay rent is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in that they’ve lost income or have had to pay for substantial medical needs as a result of the outbreak.
The ordinance comes on the heels of a March 16 executive order from California Gov.Gavin Newsom authorizing jurisdictions to suspend the eviction of tenants for failure to pay rent due to impacts from the novel coronavirus.
“Given the need for us to ensure stability throughout our community, this ordinance represents a moratorium on evictions for the non-payment of rent due to the COVID-19 virus. It recognizes that we are all going to experience loss and that we are all in this together,” a county staff member explained alongside county counsel Bruce Goldstein.
The ordinance will also allow the Sonoma County Housing Authority to extend deadlines for housing assistance recipients or applicants to deliver records or documents related to their eligibility for programs “to the extent legally possible.”
The ordinance applies to tenants living in both unincorporated areas and incorporated cities and towns throughout the county and to tenants in mobile homes.
Goldstein said in order to use this defense, a tenant must let their landlord know that they cannot pay rent either due to loss of income from COVID-19 or the need to pay medical bills due to the virus. This is an element to the ordinance because the sharing of this information to the property owner would support the owner’s claim for any prospective mortgage relief in response to the virus.
Goldstein made it clear that the urgency ordinance is not a forgiveness of rent.
While all of the supervisors supported the ordinance and recognized the need of supporting renters, District 2 Supervisor David Rabbitt and District 3 Supervisor Shirlee Zane both expressed concern regarding how this would affect landlords.
District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said while she thought it was critical to move forward with the ordinance, it would also be a good idea to look at mortgage relief options.
“It is critical that we protect our tenants … We should also look at mortgage relief,” she said.
The ordinance was originally written to sunset within 60 days.
Rabbitt suggested building a date into the ordinance that would allow for a review of the ordinance and Zane echoed his thoughts.
Zane said there could be a “three month expiration with the understanding that we can come back after two months and say we need it (the ordinance) another three months.”
After deliberation it was determined that the board will reconsider the ordinance at their next meeting on June 2 with the idea that at that time they can amend it if new information comes available or extend it if necessary.
COVID-19 county update
During the Tuesday meeting Chris Godley, director for the county department of emergency management, and Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, provided an update on COVID-19 in Sonoma County.
Godley discussed the various steps the county emergency operations center (EOC) has taken so far.
He said the EOC is running about a 10-hour shift each day.
“We are coordinating public safety and health operations, conducting near and long-term planning efforts, conducting financial operations and ensuring that we are in line for whatever state and federal resources come our way. We are also conducting a significant public information effort and communication with our residents,” Godley said.
He said there are several task forces that are working to organize various resources for residents during this time.
One task force is working on procuring, acquiring and delivering food to the community, whether it is having folks pick up groceries or having it delivered it to them.
“That is going to be a significant lift,” Godley said, noting that the county is going to contract with several community-based organizations to provide that resource directly to the most vulnerable population.
“We are also addressing, as a task force, support and services for our homeless community. Whether they are currently out there in the streets and need medical assistance and other resources, but most notably, many are being asked to leave the homeless shelters because the need to increase social distancing and safeguard the shelters,” he said.
In response, Godley said the county is working with the state to potentially bring in additional resources, such as hotel rooms, to provide suitable space for those who need to seek shelter.
Another task force they are working on is a mass fatality task force.
“We certainly hope that we never have to implement any of those procedures, but we do think it is our inherent responsibility to plan for a significant event,” he said.
In terms of federal public assistance programs Godley said it is unclear how FEMA is going to administer individual assistance programs.
“At this point given the breadth and scope of the impact, it is unclear how FEMA is going to administer the individual assistance programs for our community,” he said.
Following Godley’s presentation, Mase provider her update on the virus.
In terms of age distribution Mase said there are still very few cases in younger people under the age of 18.
“The majority of our cases are happening in adults,” she said.
At the time of the presentation, the county had 29 cases and one death. Since the presentation, the number of cases has increased daily.
In regards to the shelter-in place order, Mase said the county is working with law enforcement to work on enforcing the health order.
“We are working very closely with our law enforcement to actually have some enforcement of the shelter in place. If there are nonessential businesses that are open or some nonessential activities that hare happening, then we will have our police officers respond and go out, check out what’s happening and give some guidance as to what is happening (with the shelter order), or if there are people going to parks and beaches law enforcement will be out trying to enforce it to the extent that they can,” she said.
Mase added that they made the decision to close every single county park in order to mitigate the community transmission of the virus.
“People need to stay at home as much as possible,” she said.
As far as testing for the virus, she said the county is testing and that hopefully they will receive more resources such as swabs in order to continue testing of high risk people.
“We can continue to test the highest risk people, contact to contact cases, first responders, medical workers, older folks in nursing facilities, congregate settings like jails, these people will be prioritized for testing,” she said.
Hopkins asked if the testing capacity for the county can be increased.
“We need to bolster our testing capacity,” Mase said. “The biggest issue is not having the testing materials. Those resources our coming and when they do we need to do wide-spread testing. Testing is not the issue, it is more about those resources.”
Hopkins also asked at what point they can share broad demographic data about patients and Mase said they may be able to share information like age and gender when the county hits 50 cases.
Zane was concerned about transparency and said people may feel better if they know where a case came from, however, Mase pointed out that knowing where a case came from wouldn’t provide that much insight since the virus is at a community spread level.