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Renters Battle for More Protections Against Eviction

Pandemic-battered California faces another falling domino as paychecks vanish and rents come due.




Rent-freeze demonstration in front of the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Last week members of the Los Angeles Tenants Union gathered outside City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s Echo Park office to demand more protections for struggling renters. Due to social distancing guidelines, some demonstrators stood apart from each other on the sidewalk, while others participated in their vehicles, honking and holding signs as they caravanned down Sunset Boulevard.

As COVID-19 continues to bring unemployment and economic hardship, state, county and city governments have implemented measures to stave off eviction. However, renter activists are pushing lawmakers for stronger action to protect tenants in California’s already crunched housing market. “Unless our elected officials forgive or cancel the rents in the long term, and cancel the debts from the rents that haven’t been paid, we’re just deferring the crisis,” said Maria Zamudio of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed an executive order preventing the eviction of tenants who provide written notice to their landlords that they are unable to pay rent due to COVID-related difficulties, such as illness, job loss or childcare responsibilities. In addition to Newsom’s order, which extends through May 31, the Judicial Council of California adopted emergency rules to suspend legal proceedings for eviction and foreclosure cases.

Los Angeles County’s response to the pandemic temporarily prevents both commercial and residential evictions due to financial setbacks; it also freezes no-fault evictions along with evictions for minor violations, such as unauthorized tenants or pets. The county also temporarily banned rent increases for units governed by its recently passed rent-stabilization ordinance.

On May 12, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on whether to extend these measures through August 31. The board settled on an amended version championed by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger that guarantees the current protections through June 30 and requires a monthly reassessment thereafter. “This eviction moratorium . . . is one of the major tools in the county for keeping us healthy because those who can be evicted of course will be out on the street,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who pushed for the August extension.

Meanwhile, the City of Los Angeles is also blocking increases on rent-stabilized units, in addition to temporarily halting no-fault evictions for those impacted by the coronavirus and evictions related to landlords taking rental housing off the market under the Ellis Act.

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While these measures may stave off immediate eviction for renters who have lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of them leave tenants on the hook for that money in the future. “Nothing in this Order shall be construed to mean that the tenant will not still be obligated to pay lawfully charged rent,” said a statement from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office on the eviction protections. Although there are certain limitations placed on landlords—for instance, landlords in the city and county of Los Angeles cannot charge late fees or interest on missed payments—tenants are required to pay back rent within one year from the end of the emergency period.

According to housing rights advocates, requiring tenants to repay missed rent puts many at risk of eviction and homelessness down the road, especially given how the supply of affordable units has dwindled in recent years. “Tenants have been shouldering the economic burden of the housing crisis for a long time,” said Zamudio. Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, co-founder of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, called the eviction moratorium “tantamount to tenant debt,” adding, “Suspending rent and mortgage for the duration of the crisis is the bare minimum solution that will meet the needs of tenants at this time.”

Rosenthal also pointed out how additional programs to provide financial assistance during the pandemic, such as the Angeleno Card, put the onus on renters, rather than landlords to apply for support. “They burden tenants to apply for a benefit that inevitably goes to their landlord,” says Rosenthal.

Joshua Howard, executive vice president of local public affairs for the California Apartment Association, says landlords are also concerned about losing income. “Without rent payments, rental property owners are not able to fulfill obligations to their lenders, vendors, and employees,” Howard told Capital & Main in a written statement.

Howard called for a “balance between the needs of the residents and the rental housing providers,” and said changes to tenant protections in light of the pandemic should “be narrowly targeted to protecting those renters financially impacted by COVID-19, make it clear that rent must still be repaid, and only be in effect during the times when the government is limiting people from working.”

Activists, on the other hand, question whether it is even possible for many tenants to pay back missed rent payments. “If someone didn’t get a paycheck in April and didn’t get a paycheck in May, it doesn’t mean that six months from now all of the sudden that money is going to be in their bank account to pay back rent that they didn’t pay in those months. That money doesn’t exist and so those rents shouldn’t exist,” said Zamudio.

The need for social distancing may have changed the rulebook for protesting, but housing activists are still finding ways to organize in their cars and online. The L.A. Tenants Union currently has a rent strike underway, which Rosenthal says the majority of the organization’s 1,500 members have joined. “I think folks are going back to Organizing 101. We’re making a lot of phone calls,” says Zamudio. “Regardless of whether we can get elected officials to pass strong policy to cancel rents into the future, tenants are going to need to have the skills to negotiate with their landlords.”

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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