Mayor Robert Garcia sits alone behind the dais during the March 17, 2020 Long Beach City Council meeting. This was the last day the public was allowed inside City Hall due to the pandemic. Photo by Jason Ruiz.

The Long Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to explore a relief package that, if finalized, could block evictions brought about by the havoc COVID-19 is inflicting on the local economy.

Residents and commercial property renters could both benefit from the emergency ordinance, which would bar evictions, late fees and could even create a late-payment structure for rents missed during the coronavirus pandemic. The eviction moratorium would likely sunset at the end of May.

The deferred payment plan could let residents and businesses make up missed or incomplete rent over a period of six months, but the details of many of the proposals in the package have yet to be worked out.

The city may also explore working with the county to have property owners’ property taxes deferred or relieved. Seeking outside resources to help pay people’s rent through third parties was also an option the council discussed.

The City Attorney’s office said that an emergency ordinance could be voted on as soon as Tuesday March 24 or at a special meeting Thursday March 26.

“This is a proactive way to place our city in a position to emerge from this crisis strong,” said Councilman Rex Richardson, one of the co-authors of the emergency legislation.

The council’s move to block evictions during this uncertain time follows the lead of other public agencies across California, which have sought similar protections for their residents and commercial tenants. Long Beach has approximately two-thirds of its households renting property.

“This is not a tenant issue, this is a health issue,” said Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, who helped author the item. “No one should have to move because they were forced to stay home.”

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, many workers have lost jobs or been forced to stay home as the city has shuttered bars, restaurants, hotels and schools to slow the spread of COVID-19 and avoid overburdening the hospitals with serious cases of the disease, which normally has mild symptoms.

While the council’s final vote was unanimous Tuesday night, there was a minor hangup on what constituted a COVID-19-related eviction and if the ordinance would block all evictions outright.

Councilwoman Suzie Price said that she would support the ban on kicking persons out due to their inability to pay but did not want to back a measure that would tie the hands of property owners who were trying to oust problem-tenants who may be breaking the law.

Councilman Al Austin joined her in that sentiment by supporting a substitute motion by Councilwoman Stacy Mungo that eventually passed. That proposal would block only evictions tied to the impacts brought on by the coronavirus.

“We want to discourage people from taking advantage of the system all around,” Austin said, adding that the council’s vote was the compassionate and responsible thing to do during extraordinary times.

The item was heard before a nearly empty City Council meeting chamber as social distancing measures blocked out all but about 50 seats in the chamber. Only a handful of people attended.

Mike Murchison, a lobbyist who represents rental property owners, questioned the plans drawn up by the council to defer rents to a later date. He asked them to seek other avenues to ensure that landlords would be paid for the weeks or months that tenants aren’t able to make their regular payments due to the coronavirus economic slowdown.

“There has to be an understanding of what tenants are going to do if they have to pay back three or four months rent by a certain date when they’re struggling month to month as it is,” Murchison said. “Property owners have a similar struggle but in a different way than the tenants do. If the tenants aren’t paying their rents the landlords can’t pay their mortgages and could fall into default.”

The council could take a final vote as early as next week to pass the emergency ordinance.

[Editors note: The original version of this story said that Councilwoman Price’s motion was the one that passed. The motion that passed was submitted by Councilwoman Mungo. The story has been updated.]

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.