Businesses are slowly reopening across Los Angeles, but unemployment countywide is at a record high of 19.6 percent, and renters are trying to figure out how to pay rent.
In a city where more than 60 percent of households rent, local lawmakers are working to help tenants. The city of Los Angeles has passed a couple of emergency measures to try to thwart evictions, and it’s giving renters time to pay back any rent payments they might miss during the outbreak. It’s also working on developing a cash fund to help qualifying renters pay their rent, but that’s not expected to be up and running until July 1.
For now, here’s a breakdown of what protections are available to renters in the city of Los Angeles, how they work, and what to do if you get an eviction notice.
What does the eviction moratorium do?
The city ordinance says landlords can not evict residential tenants who are unable to pay rent because of loss of income from work, childcare costs related to school closures, healthcare costs, or “reasonable expenditures” related to COVID-19.
The ordinance also halts evictions of renters who have “unauthorized occupants,” such as family members or pets, living with them because of COVID-19. (It covers tenants facing eviction for “nuisance” reasons, like a loud child who’s in the apartment more now that schools are closed.)
There are also protections against two more types of evictions, in addition to nonpayment of rent, including:
- Cases where tenants who have contracted COVID-19 are being evicted for reasons that are not their fault. “No-fault” evictions include instances where a landlord might want to tear down the building or take the unit for a family member.
- Evictions under the California Ellis Act, which owners of rent-controlled buildings invoke when they want to demolish their buildings or remove them from the rental market, have also been halted now and are not allowed to resume until two months after the end of the “local emergency period” we’re in now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What about paying rent?
In the city of Los Angeles, tenants who have been impacted by COVID-19 can withhold rent. The ordinance buys you time to make up any missed rent payments, but does not absolve you from paying that rent. (More on that later).
Under a state order, tenants who are unable to pay must let their landlord know in writing within seven days after the rent is due. The LA housing department says it’s best to do that sooner rather than later—even ideally, before the rent is due. The department has sample letters in variety of languages to use for guidance.
If you’re worried about being able to make the full payment, Johnathan Jager of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles suggests talking to your landlord about your options. Bear in mind that landlords and property owners are also going to be crunched by the wave of people who are suddenly unable to pay rent, he says.
Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, says that most property owners will be worried about paying their mortgages, property taxes, and other regular expenses. “I think property owners are going to be willing to work things out with tenants,” Yukelson says.
The housing department’s website has some suggestions for repayment plans that might work for tenants and their landlords, but also notes that tenants and landlords are not required to agree on a repayment plan right now.
Do you have to prove that COVID-19 caused you to lose income?
No. The city does not require tenants to provide their landlord with documentation proving they have been impacted by COVID-19. But the housing is encouraging tenants to hold onto any documentation they might have, in case they receive an eviction notice.
There is no fixed list of accepted types of proof of lost income, but the website for the city’s housing department offers a few examples of documents that could support a renter’s claim: “a letter from the employer citing COVID-19 as a reason for reduced work hours or termination, employer paycheck stubs, or bank statements.”
Can your landlord raise your rent right now?
It depends. The mayor has paused rent increases in rent-stabilized units across the city. The rent-stabilization ordinance covers to buildings built and occupied before October 1, 1978. (Directions for finding out if this applies to your building are here.)
City leaders say they can not freeze rents at buildings that are not rent-controlled until the state takes action.
You will eventually have to pay rent
Angelenos will have 12 months to repay their landlords for missed rent, starting when the mayor’s local emergency period expires on May 15.
The housing department’s instructions indicate that tenants can use the repayment period to repay their landlord all the back rent that’s owed, or they can arrange their own repayment plan with their landlord once the local emergency is over. Landlords are not allowed to charge late fees on repaid rent.
What should you do if you receive an eviction notice?
If you receive an eviction notice that you suspect violates the city law—such as a “notice to pay rent or quit,” which is the first step in the legal process for evictions—file a complaint with the city of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID), which is handling eviction investigations.
When a complaint has been filed, it will be assigned to an HCID inspector. The inspector will review the documentation the tenant has to prove that their non-payment is related to COVID-19.
If everything is in order and the proof is sufficient, the housing inspector will send the landlord a letter requesting the cancellation of the notice and alert them about the repayment period.
What if your landlord still goes through with the eviction?
The housing department says the first thing you should do is stay in your home. The department will provide “thorough documentation” that can be used to defend the tenant in court, along with referrals to legal representation. The department says it will also “communicate the need for legal assistance” in eviction cases to these tenants.
Eviction cases where tenants have lawyers have been shown to be far more effective at keeping renters in their homes, but the cost of paying for a lawyer deters most renters facing eviction from getting legal representation. Los Angeles was, pre-pandemic, in the process of establishing a service that would offer some no-cost representation to tenants, but it has yet to be implemented.
The housing department says it will prioritize eviction complaints, but while your complaint is being investigated, you should stay in you home, and only leave if you are served with an order from the Los Angeles County Sheriff (which would only happen after the courts had heard the case and the outcome had not been in your favor). Though LA County Superior Court is not actively hearing eviction cases, landlords can still file the paperwork for evictions.
LA’s eviction moratorium isn’t perfect, advocates say
In a city where so many tenants were paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent before the novel coronavirus caused a citywide shutdown, evictions will be delayed—but not avoided all together, says Elena Popp, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based Eviction Defense Network
Many of her organization’s clients were already living paycheck to paycheck. Even with a year to repay back rent, “we’re just kicking the can down the road,” she says.
Popp throws out a hypothetical: A family of four paying $1,200 for rent misses four months of rent. Now they have to pay back $4,800 over a year, in addition to making their regular rent—an extra cost of $400 a month if they repay in installments over those 12 months.
“For most of these families, an additional $400 a month debt is impossible,” Popp says.
Popp says a “rent forgiveness” plan would likely be needed to truly help people stay in their homes.
Where can you go for help with evictions right now?
Tenants needing help with eviction-related matters, “irrespective of COVID-19,” should contact the housing department to weigh the options and learn about their rights, says spokesperson Sandra Mendoza.
Complaints can be submitted via HCID’s hotline number (1-866-557-7368), or online at https://hcidla.lacity.org/ask-hcidla.
Many tenant advocacy groups are still open and operating, but are not relying on in-person sessions and clinics. Instead, they’re taking phone calls, emails, and communicating via text. A number of groups are transitioning their regular tenants rights clinics to Facebook Live or Instagram.
What additional protections for renters or rental property owners could be coming come in the next weeks or days?
Ralph Jean, director of communications for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, says his organization wants to the city to enact a rent freeze and give tenants more time to repay rent. It’s part of a coalition called #HealthyLA that is calling for a broader list of protections, including not just a rent freeze, but rent forgiveness and a suspension of mortgage payments.
What about help for homeowners?
Four of the country’s five largest financial institutions have agreed to give California homeowners more time to make mortgage payments.
Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Citi agreed to waive payments for COVID-19-affected homeowners for 90 days. More than 200 state-chartered banks have agreed to do the same, Newsom said.
Bank of America will give customers only 30 days to catch up on payments.
If you’ve lost your job or seen your income drop dramatically as a result of COVID-19 and your mortgage is federally backed, NPR reports that you may be eligible to have your mortgage payments reduced or put on hold for up to a year. Though that’s only for Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac-guaranteed mortgages right now, but “regulators expect that the entire mortgage industry will quickly adopt a similar policy.”