Jingyu Wu arrived in the U.S. in 2016, bought a small triplex in San Leandro and set about creating his own American Dream.

He put his two sons in U.S. schools and became a landlord to pay college bills and make a living in his new country.

When a young woman with small children arrived at his three-bedroom unit in January seeking shelter, Wu felt sympathy. The family needed a place to stay immediately, and they agreed to a one-year lease before the COVID pandemic struck.

But since February, they’ve racked up a total of more than $30,000 in unpaid rent, according to court records. Wu sued in Alameda County Superior Court to get them out. But Wu’s case, like hundreds of others in the Bay Area, has been stalled by a statewide moratorium on evictions.

The tenant, after consulting with a legal clinic, countered with an offer in November: forgive the back rent, pay the family $12,000 to relocate and they’ll leave within weeks, according to correspondence from Wu’s attorney.

“This case has nothing to do with COVID. It’s a simple nonpayment case,” Wu said through an interpreter. “This isn’t fair.”

The patchwork eviction moratoriums — from federal edicts, state protections and local ordinances — have kept thousands of cash-strapped Bay Area renters in their homes. But the moratoriums and pandemic-related delays have also boxed in many small landlords stuck in bad tenant relationships predating or emerging during the health crisis.

A statewide moratorium halted most evictions, except emergency cases, through January. Municipalities throughout the state passed local restrictions further curbing court-ordered removal of tenants. Among Bay Area counties, Alameda, where Wu’s three rental units are located, passed some of the toughest restrictions, according to housing experts.

Lawyers practicing in Santa Clara and Alameda counties report slower court schedules and fewer eviction cases. Through June 30, eviction filings, known as unlawful detainer suits, in Contra Costa County were on pace to be about one-third of the 2019 caseload, according to court data.

A new bill brought by Assemblymember David Chiu, the San Francisco Democrat who heads the Housing and Community Development Committee, would extend the statewide eviction moratorium from the planned Jan. 31 sunset to the end of next year.

Most tenants facing a COVID hardship must sign a declaration stating they’ve financially suffered because of the pandemic. Wealthier renters may have to document their loss of income. Tenants cannot be evicted for nonpayment if they pay at least one-quarter of the rent owed between September and January.

Todd Rothbard, a Santa Clara-based attorney representing property owners, said landlords are having a tough time making eviction cases in court because of the state moratorium.

“The people taking advantage of this are not the people who need it,” Rothbard said. “Most people are honest. If they can’t pay their rent, they move.”

Tenant advocates say the protections are necessary to prevent a wave of evictions and homelessness during the most dire months of the COVID pandemic. An estimated 2 million renters in California have little or no confidence in making their next month’s rent, according to a U.S. Census survey taken in November.

But even as state and federal protections stall evictions, landlords say they have been frustrated by the inability to get rid of problem tenants.

Ami Shah and her husband, Avinash Jha, bought a single-family home in Fremont last year, planning to rent the house for a year until their own lease on another home expired. The couple interviewed nearly two dozen prospective tenants and agreed to a one-year lease with a young family in September 2019.

Only months later did they learn their tenant was leasing the home as a short-term rental on Airbnb, with single rooms advertised for $50 a night, Shah said. Neighbors alerted Shah and her husband about a steady flow of traffic in and out of the property. The couple went by the property and noticed curtains on the garage windows.

After months of battling the tenant over the lease, Shah agreed to forgive $5,500 in unpaid rent and return the tenant’s security deposit. The tenant agreed to stop subletting the home, a violation of the lease, and relinquish claims to the home.

But in the meantime, a sub-tenant changed the locks, refused to give up the property, and sued Shah’s family for harassment. Shah and her husband have filed for eviction, and the case has not been resolved.

The process has been a nightmare for the family. “If the courts were open, we would have had our house back by June,” Shah said.

Bill Mulgrew, past president of the Rental Housing Association of Southern Alameda County, said the group has received more complaints recently about illegal subletting and non-pandemic disputes over unpaid rent. Small landlords also have asked the organization for advice on how to remove tenants suspected of drug abuse and for failure to pay rent despite tenants remaining employed, he said.

A typical eviction case or settlement can cost an Alameda County landlord $30,000 in lost payments and legal fees. Costs can run higher in other Bay Area counties with more expensive rents. “Whether its COVID-related or non-COVID-related, housing providers are at the end of their reserves,” said Mulgrew, whose 650-member association primarily represent small landlords.

Wu and his attorney recently were scheduled to meet his San Leandro tenant for court-ordered mediation. She failed to appear.

A message left for her at the San Leandro home was not answered.

Wu said the rent he receives from his two other units doesn’t cover his monthly mortgage and bills. He’s losing nearly $3,200 a month in unpaid rent, and he’s had to borrow money from family members to pay his own household expenses.

He’s unsure when he’ll get the property back. A trial date has been scheduled for March, and no payments have been coming in. “We also need justice,” he said. “We have a systemic problem.”


By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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