(Photo courtesy of realtor.com)

Santa Clara County and San Jose leaders on Thursday addressed misinformation surrounding the new countywide eviction moratorium, emphasizing that residents have to communicate with landlords and that late fees and interest are prohibited during the novel coronavirus response.

The moratorium is not a rent freeze, but rather allows tenants 120 days of deferred payment on their rent if they’ve suffered financial or medical setbacks due to COVID-19.

This can include indirect impacts, such as family members who need financial support due to the virus, or reduced work hours from staying at home to take care of children. Residents have to provide documentation of the hardship.

County supervisors approved the ordinance at their weekly meeting on March 23, following a citywide ordinance by the San Jose City Council earlier last month. The eviction freeze lasts until May 31, at which point the 120-day period begins, and could be extended based on new developments with COVID-19.

The ordinance also applies to small business owners who have suffered losses or had to close.

“We want to make sure no tenant is under the false belief that ‘Oh great, I just don’t have to pay at all.’” Supervisor Dave Cortese said during a virtual news conference Thursday. “You have to pay at some point, you still owe the rent, but you can’t be evicted while you’re struggling or unable to pay at this point in time.”

Christopher Rios, a Milpitas resident of four years who has lost income due to COVID-19, said tenants are already making difficult decisions about what medications they can afford to continue, what meals they can skip, and which utility bills are essential.

“I’m definitely nowhere near the poverty line, so to tell you that we’re struggling right now — it should be a sign. It should be a signal for you to understand that your constituents are ultimately suffering,” Rios said.

“I’m here to tell you that this is not the middle of it, this is really just the beginning, we’re not even at the halfway point. We don’t really know how long a quarantine could go into effect for, we don’t know how long we could be out of work for,” he said.

He added that civil lawsuits from landlords could flood the courts after the moratorium ends if local leaders are unable to create lasting support for income and job loss throughout the county.

As local leaders try to push out information about the eviction moratorium, they’ve also encountered reports about landlords taking advantage of uninformed tenants by forcing contracts with added interest.

San Jose City Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco stressed Thursday that the ordinance prevents landlords from upcharging tenants in any way for not making rent payments on time.

Tenants will eventually have to pay rent, and the moratorium is a temporary reprieve for many who have lost jobs, been forced to work fewer hours, or taken on extra responsibilities with lower pay due to the pandemic.

City and county leaders are trying to determine what steps will secure housing for renters in the coming weeks. For now, Carrasco said tenants should try to pay full or partial rent if they’re able to afford it, without fearing any retaliation.

“This is still going to be a difficult situation, every jurisdiction is trying to figure out ways on how we’re going to support families,” Carrasco said. “The most important thing today is shelter in place, stay safe, stay healthy.”

She said, “This [moratorium] allows you not to go out and continue working under risky conditions, not to go looking for a job under risky conditions … but rather have some relief and know that you are not to be penalized turning in your rent late.”

Tenants can find legal support through the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley by calling 408-280-2424, the San Jose renter help line at 408-975-4480, or the county disaster hotline at 211.