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Bid to end Alameda County Covid eviction ban stumbles

Tuesday evening's ruling continued a trend of federal judges finding landlords can't rely on the Constitution to fight municipal eviction bans during the pandemic.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A fight against an eviction ban in the San Francisco Bay Area county of Alameda has stumbled, after a federal judge denied landlords' request for summary judgment. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler denied motions for summary judgment in two lawsuits brought by landlords against Alameda County and its Board of Supervisors, finding ordinances prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants during the Covid-19 pandemic are temporary and therefore do not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Though California’s Covid state of emergency remains in place, many provisions including the eviction moratorium and the 2020 order by Governor Gavin Newsom permitting local governments to temporarily limit nonpayment evictions expired Sept. 30. The California Legislature enacted bills to provide relief for tenants and housing providers during the pandemic, and property owners were still permitted to file actions for unlawful detainer for fault and “just cause” reasons. 

The plaintiffs in the case by nonprofit California Apartment Association — the largest statewide rental housing trade association in the country representing more than 50,000 rental property owners and operators responsible for nearly two million rental homes — sued over Alameda County’s residential eviction moratorium claiming harm from renters refusing to pay rent for reasons other than pandemic, refusing to leave and creating nuisances and damage.

“The county’s moratorium also interferes with plaintiffs’ investment-backed expectations and results in either a substantial or total deprivation of the economic value of plaintiffs’ properties,” the property owners say in their lawsuit, which sought an order declaring the ban invalid. 

Alameda County argued the plaintiffs’ theory that an eviction moratorium is a physical taking of property is “flatly inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court’s repeated holdings that only a government-compelled invasion by strangers can trigger the narrow physical takings doctrine.”

The county added its Board of Supervisors had "exercised its legislative judgment in concluding that a pause in residential evictions is a necessary response to the economic dislocation and public health crisis created by the virus."

Late Tuesday, Beeler denied the landlords' summary judgment motions by rejecting claims the eviction moratorium violated their Fifth and 14th Amendment rights. She found the ordinances are temporary, do not absolve renters of their obligation to pay rent or bar landlords from leaving the property rental business — and therefore are not physical per se taking of property under the Fifth Amendment. 

“They are not a substantial impairment of the plaintiffs' contract rights because the elimination of the eviction remedy — except under certain circumstances — does not totally extinguish those rights,” she wrote. “And the plaintiffs have not met their burden to show that the ordinances were an unreasonable response to a legitimate public problem.’’

As for due process rights under the 14th amendment, Beeler found the landlords have not been denied a hearing and that state law allows municipalities to enact renter-friendly eviction restrictions. 

“The county is certainly gratified by the court’s decision,” Alameda County attorney Matthew Zinn said, noting Beeler relied on a federal judge's findings in a similar case in Los Angeles this year “that clearly showed the proper outcome here.”

“The court followed numerous other district courts across the country that have rejected similar challenges to temporary Covid eviction moratoria,” he said. “We expect that the plaintiffs’ remaining as-applied claims will face a similar fate.” 

Whitney Prout, legal and compliance counsel for the California Apartment Association, said the plaintiffs are "disappointed, but not deterred" by the ruling.

"Substantial legal questions on the validity of the eviction moratorium and its impacts on housing providers remain to be litigated. Alameda County rental housing providers deserve to have their rights represented in court and CAA is committed to ensuring that is done in this case.”

San Francisco also faced a state court lawsuit by landlords over its permanent ban on evictions of people unable to pay rent during the Covid-19 crisis. And a federal judge in Los Angeles found an eviction moratorium in Los Angeles was “eminently reasonable under the extraordinary circumstances,” and exhorted state lawmakers to devise a solution that helps both property owners and renters.

He later stayed that ruling pending the landlords' appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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