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Landlord group sues Alameda County over COVID-19 eviction moratorium

ALAMEDA COUNTY – The California Apartment Association filed a federal lawsuit Thursday over Alameda County's COVID-related eviction moratorium.

Together with a group of five Alameda County landlords, the CAA is asking the court to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent enforcement of the county's eviction moratorium.

The suit alleges the moratorium violates the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article I of the California Constitution, which both prohibit the government from taking private property without just compensation.

The rules prevent landlords "from evicting any renter in the county, including the incorporated parts of the county, for virtually any reason, with few exceptions," according to the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The suit also alleges the moratorium "unconstitutionally impairs contracts" and violates the right to due process. It also claims the county is in violation of the state's Ellis Act, which allows landlords to remove property from the rental market.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to enact the eviction moratorium in April 2020 after both Gov. Gavin Newsom and the county declared a state of emergency over rising COVID-19 cases.

At the time, the entire state was under "stay at home" orders, schools were suspending in-person instruction and switching to remote learning, childcare businesses were closing and many sheriff's departments—including in Alameda County—had temporarily stopped enforcing evictions.

"Those residents financially impacted due to COVID-19 may not be able to make timely rent or mortgage payments or be forced to choose between paying housing expenses and having sufficient funds for food, medical care or other necessitates for themselves and their families," according to the text of the moratorium ordinance, which notes that at the time there were nearly 1,000 confirmed COVID cases and 36 deaths in the county.

As of Wednesday, there were 266,396 cases and 1,890 deaths listed on the county health department's COVID-19 website.

The lawsuit's plaintiffs are listed as the CAA, Stephen Lin, Rakesh Jain and Tripti Jain, H. Alex Alvarez and Dannie Alvarez, Alison Mitchell and Michael Hagerty, all landlords with units in the county.

The suit includes allegations from the property owners that, among other things, detail instances of unpaid rent, damaged property, unauthorized pets and unpermitted modifications to units, all of which could have been grounds for initiating an eviction process prior to the pandemic. 

"In addition to suffering losses amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, these owners' stories also showcase how the county's one-sided policy has caused real, lasting harm to property owners," CAA attorney Whitney Prout said in a news release Thursday.

The eviction moratorium is set to end 60 days after the county's COVID-19 emergency health order expires but it's unclear when the Board of Supervisors might discuss ending the order.

The state's eviction moratorium expired for most renters on Sept. 31, 2020 and will end on June 30 for those with pending rental relief applications.

During the pandemic, several jurisdictions, including the state Legislature and Alameda County, created relief accounts to which landlords and tenants could apply in order to cover past due rent, but the lawsuit claims those accounts are either "oversubscribed" or leave applicants hanging "in limbo for months at a time."

Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Keith Carson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are asking for an end to the eviction moratorium and for the county to pay their attorney's fees, expenses, "loss of property value and loss of opportunity costs," as well as general damages.

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