In the face of a global pandemic affecting all levels of economic activity and threatening massive tenant displacement, it was no surprise that existing law was unfit to the task of moderating the deluge of unpaid rent by residential tenants who were ordered to shelter-in-place at the cost of their paychecks.
Patchwork laws emerged from the California Governor and , San Francisco’s Mayor and even from the Federal Government. The Judicial Council’s freeze on unlawful detainers was set to thaw at the end of August, so Sacramento finally passed a long-awaited answer to months of open questions.
Among other things, AB 3088 enacted the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020. The CTRA makes comprehensive changes to state unlawful detainer law, it supersedes many local ordinances and orders addressing COVID-19, it excuses certain tenant nonpayment of rent during the covered period, and it expands non-eviction remedies for collection of rent.
First, for non-payment of rent evictions, the CTRA covers what it calls the “Covered Time Period” (i.e., March 1, 2020 through January 31, 2021), which encompasses the “Protected Time Period” (March 1, 2020 through August 31, 2020) and the “Transition Time Period” (September 1, 2020 through January 31, 2021).
During the entire Covered Time Period, a tenant still owes their rent, however, most of it will become a form of consumer debt, as the CTRA significantly alters the unlawful detainer statutes in issuing rent default notices and prosecuting evictions. If a tenant owes rent during the Protected Time Period, they can cure a “15-day notice to cure or quit” by paying the full amount due, quitting the property, or merely by signing a declaration stating that they’ve suffered “COVID-19-related financial distress”. The same scheme applies in the Transition Time Period, except that the tenant must also pay at least 25% of the rent due for each of the five months in this period before the end of January of 2021. If they do, they have cured the eviction notice.
The CTRA also significantly expands small claims jurisdiction (the obvious purpose being to lower the transaction costs for landlords in collecting this consumer debt). Formerly, a small claims plaintiff could seek $10,000 in damages (or $5,000 if they are a fictitious entity), and they may bring two such lawsuits per year. The CTRA removes the dollar limit, as well as filing limit. However, landlords cannot avail themselves of this expanded jurisdiction prior to March 1, 2021.