By Mike Godbe, CILS Bishop office Registered Legal Aid Attorney
If you rent your home in California and have had difficulty paying your rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new state law can help you stay in your home.
This blog post aims to provide an overview of some of the most important protections in a new California law known as “AB 3088”, which does not apply on Indian reservations or allotments. Because California has the largest Native American population of any state, and over half of that population lives in urban areas off reservations, this new law provides important protections for California Indians. With the exception of our Bishop office, CILS deals exclusively with matters of federal Indian law, so off-reservation tenants in need of legal services should seek assistance from other legal service providers on this and other state-law issues.
Disclaimer: AB 3088 is complex and cannot be fully explained in one blog post – this post is NOT legal advice. If you have a specific question regarding your situation, contact a landlord/tenant attorney or one of the many tenants’ rights advocacy groups across the state.
AB 3088 provides protections to California renters who are behind on rent that came due between March 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021 (the “Covered Period”), who are behind for a COVID-related reason, and who provide their landlord with a signed declaration swearing to the COVID-relation. The law applies to all residential rental tenants and mobile home residents, including single-family home and ADU rentals.
If a landlord has a tenant that is behind on rent due during the Covered Period, the landlord must first send the tenant a general notice describing the rights provided by AB 3088 before they can serve an eviction notice. CCP § 1179.04.
AB 3088 extends the notice period for nonpayment evictions from 3 to 15 days (not including weekends or holidays) to provide tenants additional time to either pay their landlord or provide the landlord with a declaration of hardship. Landlords must attach to the eviction notice a blank copy of the declaration for the tenant to sign and return.
If the nonpayment is based on unpaid rent that was due between March 1, 2020 and August 31, 2020 and the tenant timely returns the signed declaration, the tenant cannot be evicted.
If the nonpayment is based on unpaid rent that was due between September 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021, and the tenant timely returns the signed declaration AND pays 25% of all unpaid rent by January 31, 2021, the tenant cannot be evicted.
If your head is spinning, you’re not alone.
So does this mean that tenants will not owe the rent? No. Tenants still owe their landlords the rent that they are contractually obligated to pay, however tenants cannot be evicted based on unpaid rent from the Covered Period (March 2020 through January 2021), provided they timely return the signed declaration. Beginning on March 1, 2021, Landlords will be able to sue their tenants in small claims court for the unpaid rent, receive judgments, and collect those judgments – but they cannot evict their tenants for unpaid rent from the Covered Period and cannot sue to collect before March 2021.
However, if a tenant does not timely return the declaration, he or she can be evicted (but note that he or she will also have a chance to prove – at a hearing before a judge in the eviction lawsuit – that this failure was an accident, in which case the judge should dismiss the lawsuit).
Evictions for Reasons other than nonpayment and “No-Fault” Evictions
Until September 1, 2020, California Courts were not allowing any evictions to move forward (except in exceptional circumstances involving threats to health and safety). With the passage of AB 3088, this is no longer the case: evictions based on a reason other than nonpayment of rent (e.g., breach of rental lease) are now happening in California. However, until February 2, 2021, all landlords must have some reason (i.e., ‘just cause’) to evict any tenant (i.e., ‘no-cause’ or ‘no-fault’ evictions are largely prohibited until February 2, 2021, though a small category of ‘no fault just cause’ evictions may still able to proceed, see Civil Code 1946.2).
Landlords cannot retaliate against tenants for not paying rent for a COVID-related reason between March 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021. And landlords cannot mask a ‘nonpayment’ eviction in another type of eviction. For example, if a landlord evicts for breach of the lease, he cannot under the guise of a breach-of-lease eviction try to collect unpaid rent from between March 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021.
How are Local Laws Affected?
AB 3088 overrules or modifies local ordinances setting time periods for repayment of rent that went unpaid due to COVID. For most local ordinances that allow tenants more time to repay rent, AB 3088 changes those ordinances to require repayment begin by March 1, 2021 and end no later than March 31, 2022.
Penalties for Landlords
For landlords who simply mess-up these new legal requirements by serving an old eviction notice, providing less time, failing to attach a copy of the unsigned declaration or provide the required notice of tenants’ rights, the punishment is only that the eviction lawsuit will fail and the landlord will have to start over and follow the law.
However, AB 3088 also adds section 789.4 to the Civil Code, which provides penalties between $1,000 and $2,500 against landlords who resort to self-help evictions (i.e. locking the tenant out, throwing personal property out onto the curb, shutting off utilities, etc).
If you believe your rights under AB 3088 may have been violated, contact your local legal services provider, a tenants’ rights advocacy group, or a private California attorney knowledgeable in housing law.
 AB 3088 includes protections for some homeowners having difficulty paying their mortgages, limited protections for higher income tenants, protections for some small landlords who have seen their rental income decrease due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and language requirements for the notices if the rental agreement was negotiated in a language besides English – however, these matters are beyond the scope of this post.