Guest Opinion: Rent in the time of COVID-19

  • by Reese Aaron Isbell
  • Wednesday March 25, 2020
Share this Post:
Reese Aaron Isbell. Photo: Courtesy Reese Aaron Isbell
Reese Aaron Isbell. Photo: Courtesy Reese Aaron Isbell

With rising rents, lack of affordable housing, and fear of eviction notices, it was already a challenge for many San Franciscans to afford to live here. Now, with COVID-19, the coronavirus, and possible upcoming recession, we have immediate additional burdens like loss of wages, layoffs, illness, and child care.

Fortuitously, a number of measures have now taken hold, both specific to the current COVID-19 pandemic, and others shepherded throughout the last year, that provide some stronger protections.

Significantly, Mayor London Breed ordered a citywide moratorium on residential evictions related to any financial impacts caused by COVID-19. Gay state Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblyman Phil Ting (both D-San Francisco) are pushing the Legislature to pass similar measures statewide. Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that gave authorization to local governments to do so. District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston has introduced local legislation to that effect and calling for expansions of the local and state executive orders.

Our state legislative delegation (Wiener, Ting, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco) wrote San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Garrett L. Wong requesting a moratorium on unlawful detainer trials and the Superior Court agreed to delay eviction proceeding cases for 90 days. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) has urged the National Sheriff's Association to issue a nationwide moratorium on eviction enforcements, while San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto announced that his office will not currently proceed with enforcing evictions.

Further, for those living outside of the city, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has a running update on its website for any local, state, and national actions being taken to assist people experiencing homelessness and those from low-income households:

You should also check in with the local housing rights groups in your area.

Other protections

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, new protections passed last year have also recently begun to take effect.

Chiu's historic win with Assembly Bill 1482 offers first-ever statewide protections for renters through a 5%-plus inflation rent cap and tenant eviction protection for those who have been living in an apartment for more than a year without a "just cause." Millions of Californians around the state will now have their first taste of rent control.

Locally, Supervisor Matt Haney (D6) successfully passed legislation that expanded some protections locally to more than 35,000 households. Supervisor Aaron Peskin (D3) pushed forward new requirements landlords must meet when conducting capital improvements so that "temporary" renovations will not end up as "renovictions." Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer (D1) fought for new rules that no longer make tenants bear the cost of their building owner's debt services or property taxes.

If you would like more information on any of the above or other tenant issues generally, you can find many answers, and direct ways to contact staff for assistance, on the San Francisco Rent Board's website,

Rent board personnel, your elected officials, as well as housing rights organizations, are all still working diligently during this COVID-19 period. They want to be of service, now and always. Know that it is OK to reach out to others who can assist. Remember you are never alone in your questions and concerns.

A year ago, when Mayor London Breed appointed me to serve on the rent board, I quickly saw just how extensive the workloads and daily duties were for these dedicated servants to the city. I began discussions around overall structure and budget in order to assist personnel and process. The city has since highlighted these needs in ongoing negotiations for additional staffing, office space, and technical upgrades.

I have been developing with staff a planned expansion of public outreach programs in order to help inform more residents directly in their neighborhoods. Through a creative partnership with the San Francisco Public Library, the rent board will soon be providing in-person trainings and Q&A sessions for residents all over the city within the branch libraries.

Further, I brought together leaders from several organizations — San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Catholic Charities, AIDS Legal Referral Panel, and the Q Foundation — for a roundtable discussion with Breed on issues specific to renters living with HIV. From this discussion, the mayor immediately shored up several hospices on the brink of closure, heard feedback on privacy struggles, and noted the intersection between housing stability and medication routines. Breed later augmented the city budget to provide $1 million in rental subsidies for people living with HIV.

Renting in San Francisco has many challenges. I believe that keeping one's home, and being able to afford to do so, is fundamental to our community's stability and public health. As everyone attempts to adhere to the stay-at-home mandate, we must do everything possible to make sure there continues to be a home in which to stay.

Reese Aaron Isbell is an unemployed tenant living with his husband in the Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and serves as a tenant alternate commissioner on the San Francisco Rent Board. The Rent Board can be contacted at (415) 252-4602 and via