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California bill aims to rein in high security deposits

Most renters know securing housing isn’t as simple as finding the perfect place.

California’s renters must save up thousands of dollars to provide security deposits that can legally be as much as two months’ rent, or three months’ for furnished units.

Add in the requirement that renters put up the first month’s rent before they can move in and low-income families are most likely to give up hope of finding a home.

The state Assembly on May 22 passed a proposal that could change that.

Assembly Bill 12 would limit security deposits to one month’s rent, regardless of whether a unit is furnished or not. If the bill passes and gets Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, California could become the 12th state to limit security deposits.

“Security deposits present barriers for people to move into apartments, which can lead them to stay in apartments (and) in homes that are too small, crowded or even unsafe,” said Matt Haney, the Democratic Assemblymember from San Francisco who authored the bill. “In other cases, people take on debt or financial burden that leaves them unable to afford other necessities.”

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Housing is the foundation for healthy people and communities. California needs a fundamentally new approach to keep people safely housed.

COVID-19 has been with us for nearly two years, and in California we’ve gone through a dizzying rollercoaster of eviction protections, ranging from robust – the Judicial Council’s emergency order stopping all but emergency evictions, to nonsensical – the March 2020 executive order billed as an eviction moratorium that had little actual effect.

Tenants and advocates have been tirelessly demanding simpler, more robust eviction protections that will last until the state distributes billions in rental assistance funds to eligible tenants and landlords. These demands were ignored, and evictions are now rolling forward while tenants continue to wait for the funds to be distributed. At the same time, the number of Californians experiencing homelessness continues to rise. This continually evolving crisis also highlights the ways evictions are another form of racialized violence that harm communities of color much more than others; in particular, Black people are disproportionately likely to be evicted and experience homelessness.

In California, about 17 million people rent their homes. Any of those people could be kicked out of their home in a matter of weeks under our current eviction laws — even if they have lived in their home for 30 years, if they are a person with a disability, or if they are elderly and in poor health and it’s the middle of winter. Renters are constantly vulnerable because our system prioritizes the rights of property owners over basic human needs.

During the pandemic, public health researchers demonstrated through exhaustive research what tenants and advocates already know – people who are evicted are also more likely to die. Children experiencing eviction do poorly in school, impacting the trajectory of their lives. Pregnant women suffer greater mortality and have worse health outcomes. Evictions lead to profound mental health problems that persist even after the tenant finds new housing. An eviction is not a blip in a life; it is a catastrophic event that can take people from barely making it to not making it at all.

The legislature passed AB 832 this summer, the third in a series of complicated eviction protection laws intended to stop evictions for tenants eligible for rental assistance. While the bill has protected some tenants, many people remain vulnerable to losing their homes. State rental assistance is rolling out far too slowly and tens of thousands of eligible tenants are still waiting for help to arrive.

Tenant attorneys and advocates are trying to defend tenants from eviction for rental debt that should be covered by the billions of dollars California received from the federal government, but the money is moving too slowly, and courts are processing eviction cases without checking to see if the landlord is being paid through the rental assistance fund. The law is so complicated that tenants have little chance of defending themselves without an attorney, and even with an attorney, tenants eligible for rental assistance can still be evicted even while their landlord receives the money they are owed.

As a result, people who should be protected by these laws are becoming homeless. Those who lose their homes will, more likely than not, also be those who took the brunt of COVID’s devastation – people of color, people with disabilities, elderly people, and families with young children. These are Californians who just want to keep a roof over their head — those who lost jobs during COVID or had to stay home to care for children who suddenly had no physical school; those who got sick themselves or had to care for sick family members.

The complex, layered web of protections that evolved throughout the pandemic all just highlight one fundamental truth: the entire system we use to provide housing, and to take it away, is utterly unjust and broken. COVID must be a wake-up call for us all that this system doesn’t make sense.

Thanks to AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act passed in 2019, most tenants have existing protection from so called “no cause” evictions — when the landlord simply kicks you out without stating a reason. Despite these protections, a tenant can still be removed from their home if they are late for even part of a month’s rent. With only three days’ notice, landlords can proceed with an eviction case, even for a long-term tenant who follows all the rules.

Without enough attorneys to assist them, tenants facing eviction will often just move out because they are afraid to go through the court process alone. Our entire legal system is based on the premise that a landlord’s right to evict someone from the property they own is fundamental and critical. Even when the landlord is a giant multinational corporation that owns tens of thousands of units, their right to evict is treated as primary; meanwhile for the family who lives in that home, the “property” is the center of their life, community, access to work, school, and medical care. All of that can be taken away from California tenants with only three days’ notice.

It benefits all of us as a society to remake this system to protect people’s basic right to a safe home. Many people are working to do just that, through the movement for social housing and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase legislation (like in Berkeley, Oakland and Los Angeles). In California, we must work to make fundamental, long-term reforms based on the basic premise that affordable, stable housing is a necessary foundation for healthy communities. Evictions should be a rare occurrence that only happen as a last resort.