David Barroso Jr., a resident of Torrance in south Los Angeles County, was already falling behind on rent when he was laid off in March 2020. Ten months later, in late January, he estimated his debts had grown to about $17,000, and he had received a 15-day notice from his landlord to be evicted at the start of February. When California’s eviction moratorium was extended through June, he was able to stay in his home after paying 25% of the month’s rent.

But unable to afford a car, Barroso struggled to find a new job. He passed up two offers, both of which required him to drive to receive in-person training for the first month. He’s also faced delays on his unemployment payments from the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD), and an attempted credit card fraud left his bank account frozen for months. At one point, Barroso only had $7.

“You’re going through so many emotions, you know, between not being able to pay your rent, not being able to get a job,” he said. “And then, hoping that you can get food.”

When Barroso got his second stimulus check in January, he said he “can’t touch that money,” in case he faces legal fees in an eviction case.

“I have to save that for, God forbid, I gotta go to a court case,” he said.

Barroso is one of many California tenants who depend on the state and federal eviction moratoriums to stay housed.

Housing advocates, attorneys and academics have been scrambling to understand just how many evictions will come after the state moratorium expires on June 30 — three months after the federal moratorium — and how to deal with the impacts of that housing instability.

The lack of reliable information on evictions makes this effort even more challenging. A state law that masks all but completed evictions protects tenant privacy, but also means there is little or no accurate data on ongoing eviction processes.

And while the rent moratorium guards tenants from being evicted due to non-payment of rent, it does not eliminate debts owed to landlords. That means those employees who are laid off or fall behind on payments will still have big housing bills come due, whether or not they have a new job or their pay has remained the same.

Janani Ramachandran, of Indivisible East Bay, fears an “eviction tsunami” when eviction moratoriums end. (Photo courtesy of the city of Oakland)

Housing instability has grown in large part because of a shrinking job market due to widespread layoffs and closures resulting from COVID-19 restrictions. In California, 2020 saw more than 300,000 temporary layoffs, compared to 1,913 temporary layoffs in 2019, according to a Big Local News analysis of data from the EDD. Unstable employment means unstable housing, say housing advocates, and many of these jobs won’t return.

“The day these protections end, landlords are going to be filing so many evictions,” said Janani Ramachandran, a nonprofit lawyer and tenant rights advocate with Indivisible East Bay, a grassroots organization focused on electing and lobbying progressive leaders in San Francisco’s East Bay. “That is ultimately going to lead to what many have termed an eviction tsunami.”

Layoffs and housing instability

In 2019, at least 464 California companies filed layoff notices. In 2020, more than six times the number of companies notified the state of potential job layoffs — 2,842 businesses — according to an analysis of California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN). Companies that lay off more than 50 workers in a 30-day period must file these notices with the EDD .

How many people actually lost their job is hard to tell precisely. Smaller businesses, which have been hit hard by the pandemic, have also laid off employees but those smaller businesses are not required to file WARN notices. Companies that do file WARN notices sometimes file temporary layoff notices and then refile some of those as permanent layoffs. Other times, companies file a notice but never actually lay anyone off.

But the comparison to 2019 shows that the number of possible layoffs is dramatically higher. In 2019, companies notified the state that they would permanently lay off 24,182 employees. In 2020, the number of permanently laid off employees reached 108,167, a four-fold increase, reflecting the pandemic’s tremendous impact.

And the staggering 379,029 people that California companies reported they would lay off temporarily in 2020 was almost 200 times the number in 2019.

It’s possible that some temporary layoffs reflect just short-term job losses that didn’t become permanent layoffs. But all of the numbers reported to the state are an undercount of jobs lost since many job losses were not recorded.

“We are still beginning to understand how devastating an impact the pandemic will have on the economy, on permanent job losses,” said John Logan, an economics professor at San Francisco State University and chair of the Labor and Employment Studies Department at the university. Just as those service jobs were the first to go, low-wage and part-time positions will be the first to reappear in a post-pandemic recovery, he said.

“We are still beginning to understand how devastating an impact the pandemic will have on the economy, on permanent job losses,” said San Francisco State economics professor John Logan. (Photo courtesy of SFSU)

“When the economy starts to recover these are the kinds of the jobs created the most, they won’t be full-time … open-ended job contracts, middle-class incomes, career progression [jobs],” Logan said. “There will be far more low-wage, insecure, part-time, temporary, gig worker kinds of jobs that will be created.”

Ariana, a 24 year-old Iranian-American woman living in Oakland, experienced Logan’s theory firsthand. She was fresh out of college and working at a public relations firm when she was laid off last year in early March. Due to a signed agreement with her former employer, she asked that her last name not be used. She said she was in line for a promotion within the next year, but her team worked heavily with a client in the travel industry, which was hit hard by the pandemic.

“Any kind of job security I had, any kind of outlook of seeing [myself as] a successful woman in my career, all of that just kind of got thrown out within the matter of a week,” Ariana said. “I went to school, although I was a low-income student. I got [my] degree, I did everything that I could and I still lost all of it in the matter of a couple of days.”

After giving herself a week to binge watch Netflix and eat whatever ice cream she could find on the panic-raided store shelves, Ariana said she treated job applications as her new 9 to 5. She applied to over 400 jobs and was finally hired in April, the same week that she had planned to file for unemployment because her severance pay was ending.

Ariana’s new job was in communications for the wildfire safety operations center at PG&E, on a six-month contract that was extended until January. She has since landed another job as an account coordinator for Clarity PR. But for a time she said she lived in fear of not being able to pay her bills and her rent.

“I live in Oakland, I pay my own rent, I pay for all of my own bills,” Ariana said. “So the financial aspect of it was also another thing I was really worried about.”

Tracking evictions

Illegal, forced displacement has continued to take place during the COVID-19 crisis, said Shanti Singh, a housing advocate with Tenants Together, a coalition of California organizations advocating for tenants’ rights.

“Tracking displacement during the pandemic may only be understood a year or more from now, as we get aggregated information about people’s movement over time,” Singh said.

Just the threat of eviction can be enough to convince renters to move, said Amber Crowell of Faith in the Valley, a grassroots community organization working in California’s Central Valley. When tenants fall behind on rent, landlords can issue a notice asking them to pay within three days or move. Often, she said, “tenants leave because they know they’re not going to get the rent together in three days. And they don’t want to go through the court process because that could tarnish their record, and they can’t afford it.”

These informal evictions don’t show up in court records. Indeed, the evictions that show up in court files, sheriff lockout lists or records managed by public housing authorities, represent just a small fraction of all such actions. Knowing how many people are facing eviction, or will face eviction, whether informally or through the courts, is a challenge.

Once an eviction gets to court it is known as an unlawful detainer case. The Displaced in America: Housing Loss and Poor Data study published in September by New America, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank, shows that there was no data on evictions for 18 counties in California from 2014 to 2016.

“There’s no standardization in how counties are recording, storing, tracking or sharing their data on evictions,” said Yuliya Panfil, one of the study’s authors. “And in many places, there’’s no mandate that requires them to share that data. And in some places, like in California, there are certain rules that actually prohibit the sharing of data.”

In 2017, the state Legislature passed a law to protect tenants with records of past evictions from unfair discrimination. This masking law was intended to protect tenants who might struggle to find a place to rent due to past evictions, especially when landlords have many qualified tenants to choose from, said Ugochi Anaebere-Nicholson, directing attorney of the housing and homelessness prevention unit at the Public Law Center, an organization that provides free legal services to low-income residents in Orange County.

Ugochi Anaebere-Nicholson of the Public Law Center in Orange County. (Photo courtesy of PLC)

Before the permanent masking law, tenants had to resolve their eviction cases within 60 days to keep an eviction filing masked, Anaebere-Nicholson said. The new law keeps evictions hidden from public view until a resolution in the case, helping evicted tenants while they look for new housing.

Once a case has been deliberated, it becomes unsealed if the landlord wins, Anaebere-Nicholson said.

The masking law is important but the data still needs to be tracked, Anaebere-Nicholson said. She pointed to the Eviction Lab out of Princeton University, which tracks evictions nationwide as an example of the power of collecting such information.

The lab pulls in evictions over time, and calculates eviction rates in different neighborhoods, cities and states. The data show that “Black and Latino tenants are four to six times as likely to face evictions.”  All told, 160,000 households in California face eviction every year according to the Eviction Lab data.

Being able to track evictions data is necessary to target assistance to those who need it, said Panfil.

When the eviction isn’t official

Anaebere-Nicholson and her colleagues at the Public Law Center in Orange County take a call from a low-income tenant seeking help anywhere from 20 to 40 times a day. At one point last March, they fielded 100 calls in one day.

Around half of those tenants — all of whom earn less than $12,000 a year — also lost their income due to layoffs from COVID-19. For some, that job loss meant they soon lost their housing too, Anaebere-Nicholson said.

Some tenants reported that landlords had locked them out, throwing their belongings into the street, Anaebere-Nicholson said. Other times, landlords had threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for undocumented immigrants even though this is illegal.

Anaebere-Nicholson provided two examples of tenants who were served with eviction notices.

One single father of four children had rented in the same location for 20 years. He received assistance from the Housing Choice Voucher program, a federal program that helps low-income people, people with disabilities and the elderly afford private housing.

(Photo courtesy of realtor.com)

When he was laid off in early March 2020, his landlord decided they did not want to continue renting to him and gave him a 60-day eviction notice. It was only after working with the Public Law Center that he was able to make the case that such evictions were illegal and reached a settlement with the landlords that allowed him to stay.

In the second case, Anaebere-Nicholson described a single mother and house cleaner who was laid off and reported that her landlords had illegally increased her rent. After falling behind on rent for a couple of months, the landlords told her that they were intending to sell the property and served her with a 60-day eviction notice. The eviction notice was served before the moratorium came into effect and the case was escalated to the state court.

The landlord then began accepting rent payments, but also didn’t tell his own attorney. As a result, the case was dismissed.

“But if the lawyers did not get involved, she would have been defaulted,” Anaebere-Nicholson said. “She would have been evicted and on the street.”

Layoffs where rent is costly

Big Local News examined four counties in California where the rent burden is so high that tenants routinely spend more than half their income on housing, from Butte County to Santa Cruz County.

Big Local News also reviewed patterns in metro areas such as Los Angeles County, to expand the analysis to areas with high population density. The layoff numbers do not fully represent the scope of job losses, as small businesses with less than 100 employees are not required to file notices in California.

Santa Cruz County

In Santa Cruz County, almost a third (31%) of households spend more than half their income for housing. Last year, businesses filed temporary layoff notices for 2,707 employees or almost 10 employees for every 1,000 residents. As for permanent layoffs, businesses in the county filed notice to lay off 988 people. By comparison in 2019, before the pandemic, Santa Cruz County had a lot fewer layoffs. Businesses filed notice to lay off 93 people temporarily, just .34 per 1,000 residents, and didn’t file any notices to lay off employees permanently.

The Mount Hermon Association, a religious camp and retreat site for outdoors events and activities, reported the most permanent layoffs in Santa Cruz County, with 265 people. Mount Hermon Association could not be reached for comment.

Overall, Santa Cruz County saw 29 times the number of temporary layoffs in 2020 as it did in 2019.

Yolo County

Businesses in Yolo County filed notices for 457 permanent layoffs in 2020, or two jobs lost for every 1,000 residents.

Businesses in Yolo County reported they would need to lay off 599 workers temporarily in 2020, about three jobs lost for every 1,000 residents. In 2019, the number of layoff notices filed with the state? None.

Not all of the layoffs recorded were pandemic-related, but the timing has meant jobs still were lost amid the crisis. For example, the Sacramento Business Journal reported in March that custom car parts company Driven Performance Brands Inc., was moving its business from West Sacramento and Santa Rosa to Kentucky.

The business journal said 137 employees would be laid off. The company reported to the state in March and May that it would permanently lay off 240 employees. Driven Performance Brands could not be reached for comment.

Butte County

Butte County, where nearly a third (31%) of households spend more than half of their income on housing, was already struggling before the pandemic hit. One of its larger employers, Adventist Health in Paradise temporarily closed, eliminating 1,331 jobs in 2019.

Then, last year, the job losses continued, with employers notifying the state that they would eliminate 1,002 temporary jobs and 570 permanent jobs.

Los Angeles County

Renters in L.A. County need to earn nearly three times the city of Los Angeles hourly minimum wage of $15 to afford monthly rents, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported in June. In 2019 and 2020, the number of homeless people in L.A. grew by nearly 13% — and that count took place before the pandemic’s wave of layoffs.

In 2020, 118,618 employees in L.A. County faced temporary layoffs, 11 people for every 1,000 residents. By comparison, the number of temporary layoff notices in 2019? Just 338.

Analyzing layoff notices in California

Once COVID-19 cases started to spread last year, cities and counties created restrictions leading many businesses to close temporarily and permanently. Big Local News started collecting layoff notices, also known as WARN Notices, as stories of layoffs and job losses flooded the news.

Big Local News obtained California’s WARN notices by visiting the Employment Development Department website. We built a program to crawl the website, also known as a web scraper, to locally download the records provided on the website in an automated fashion. From California’s EDD website, we gathered records from as far back as 2014 to the end of 2020. We built similar scrapers for other state sites. All of that data is available at biglocalnews.org.

In California, Big Local News reporters — including student journalists — sought to answer a couple of key questions: 

  • How many people were laid off in 2020? 
  • Can the numbers show COVID-19’s impact on layoffs just by comparing WARN records from 2019 and 2020?

We manually cleaned the data using a software tool named OpenRefine. This tool allowed us to standardize company names and export the cleaned data.

With the standardized data, we identified possible duplicates from the data by comparing the columns for notice date, employee layoffs, city, county, and company name. We then removed the duplicates and kept the data that did not fall under the duplication criteria.

After that, we used a data analysis tool, Jupyter Notebook, and the programming language, Python, to crunch the numbers. In the analysis, we summed permanent and temporary layoff figures by year and by county to compare job losses. Population data was added to the analysis, and with that we calculated permanent and temporary layoff figures per 1,000 people. This information was grouped by county to help us figure out where the biggest impacts from layoffs were being felt. We used these numbers as a way to contextualize the already difficult situation for people who are in danger of being evicted or those dealing with housing instability due to the pandemic. 

* Big Local News is a Stanford-based data-sharing platform and collaborative. Its goal is to collect, process and share governmental data that are hard to obtain and difficult to analyze; partner with local and national newsrooms on investigative projects across a range of topics; and make it easy to teach best practices for finding stories within the data.