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The renter’s guide to the coronavirus pandemic

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Can I move into a new apartment? What should I do if I can’t pay my rent? Should I still ride the elevator?

Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

With LA’s safer-at-home order extended to May 15, many Angelenos are in for at least another month of wondering how to do basic things—pay rent, get something fixed, and move—amid a pandemic.

Below are answers to some of the most urgent questions tenants are asking right now.

The information compiled here focuses on the city of Los Angeles, but when it comes to measures to protect and help renters, the cities of Inglewood, Glendale, Burbank, and Santa Monica, along with unincorporated areas of LA County, have similar rules in effect.

It’s a lot of information to navigate, and, as the pandemic wears on, new measures are being added frequently. If you don’t see your question here, or you live outside of the city of Los Angeles, don’t be shy about calling your local housing department or tenants right groups or legal aid organizations (a list of local resources is below): It’s worth the trouble to get definitive answers, says Lorraine Lopez, an attorney with Public Counsel.

A lot of people are embarrassed about their circumstances, Lopez says, but they shouldn’t be. “Don’t be ashamed. Keep asking questions,” she says.

What should I do if I can’t pay my rent this month?

The city enacted a series of protections in March aimed at preventing evictions. While the protections do not amount to a full-on moratorium, they do state that landlords can’t evict tenants who can’t make rent because of COVID-19—whether that’s because they no longer have a job or because they have to pay for medical expenses.

The city’s eviction protections do not require tenants to provide notice to their landlords that they cannot pay rent or any proof of why they can’t pay.

But tenant advocates recommend that if you anticipate not being able to make your full rent, you should give your landlord a heads-up as soon as possible. The housing department’s website has a sample letter that renters can use, and many tenants’ rights organizations have similar samples.

Eventually, once the “local emergency period” ends, renters will owe their landlords whatever rent they missed. They will have 12 months to pay the rent back, and landlords are not allowed to charge late fees.

What about going on a rent strike?

A rent strike, generally speaking, is when a group of tenants organize to withhold rent as a means to force management to meet a demand, like fixing longstanding maintenance requests or protesting a rent hike.

Many times, these renters are still paying rent‚ just not to their landlords—the money goes into an escrow account and is given to the landlord once the demands are met.

But with the onslaught of COVID-19, record-breaking numbers of people in the city and across the nation are without work and without income. In many cases, these renters are not so much choosing not to pay rent as accepting a hard fact that they do not have any money.

Regardless, “by not being able to pay, you are in effect going on strike,” says Elizabeth Blaney, a member with the Union de Vecinos, the eastside chapter of the LA Tenants Union. People who have limited funds and are being forced to choose between spending money on rent or other necessities are the focus of the tenants union’s “Food Not Rent” campaign.

Rent strikes are also being used as a strategic tool to highlight the necessity for further and more dramatic aid for renters as the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus continues to grow.

Statewide, an alliance of housing advocates is pushing for rent and mortgage forgiveness from Gov. Gavin Newsom—and threatening a rent strike if it’s not delivered by May 1.

There are anti-eviction measures in place in LA, but they mainly function as a defense against evictions in court—in other words, they assume you will end up in eviction court. And even those protections are very clear that once the local emergency period ends, renters will be on the hook to eventually pay off their rent debt, says Lopez.

Blaney says that protection measures for tenants have expanded since the outbreak started, and that it’s possible more protections will be added.

“We’re in an ever-changing type of situation,” she says.

Am I still allowed to move while all of this is going on?

Yes, you are. But it’s likely to be much trickier for those who don’t already have a new residence picked out.

In-person showings of rentals and homes that are for sale are only allowed in the city of Los Angeles if a digital showing isn’t possible—and then, there are restrictions about how many people can be in the residence at once. That means prospective tenants and buyers are sometimes making offers and submitting applications without ever actually visiting spaces. While digital showings and FaceTime tours of spaces are happening, but definitely aren’t the same.

Moving companies are still allowed to operate. Crews are required to wear face coverings and observe physical distancing requirements, and companies must provide a way for workers to sanitize their hands every half hour. (If you are in the apartment with the movers, you also have to stay six feet apart from them and cover your face too.)

If friends or family are helping you move, it’s a good idea to limit the number of people coming and going, while making sure they stay six feet apart from each other, cover their faces, and are able to wash their hands frequently.

Can I still take the elevator in my building?

Elevators are enclosed spaces that aren’t usually well-ventilated, making them a less than ideal space when trying to avoid breathing in respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health advises residents not to crowd into elevators, and to wear face coverings in case someone else comes in.

Because most people live in buildings where the elevator is not big enough to accommodate six feet of separation, if a neighbor is already in the elevator, it might be best to wait for the next one.

Even if you’re in an elevator alone with your face covered, remember that all the surfaces—and especially the buttons—have probably been touched by other people. Be sure to wash your hands before and after your ride.

Is it safe to use the laundry room?

Not everyone is lucky enough to have their own in-unit washer and dryer. Those who must venture out to do laundry should cover their face (in case they run into someone in the space) and wash their hands before and after touching those shared machines.

The public health department also recommends trying to find strategies for reducing crowding in the laundry room, like implementing a sign-up sheet to limit the number of people trying to wash their clothes at the same time.

What if I need something fixed in my apartment?

Electricians and plumbers are deemed essential under the stay-at-home orders, and are still allowed to work right now,.

If your landlord hasn’t responded to a request for repairs, advocates recommend notifying your landlord in writing that a repair is needed. (Don’t forget to include the date if it’s a paper letter.) If there’s been no response or if the repair hasn’t been made within two weeks, contact LA’s housing department and file a complaint online or over the phone at 1-866-557-7368.

City inspectors aren’t coming out for inspections right now because of the pandemic, but it’s important to put your complaint in the system, says Blaney.

What should I do if I get an eviction notice?

The city of Los Angeles has told landlords not to evict tenants who are unable to pay rent because of the new coronavirus, but it’s still possible an eviction notice could end up on your door.

If you receive a “notice to pay rent or quit”—the first step in the legal process for evictions—you should file a complaint with the city of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID), which is handling eviction investigations. You can file a complaint online or over the phone by calling the housing department’s hotline at 866-557-7368.

While you wait for HCID to process your complaint, and before the notice expires, you should let your landlord know—or remind them—the reason why you haven’t paid. (The notice will say the number of days a tenant has to act.) Tenant advocates usually advise renters to do important communication with their landlord in writing.

When a complaint has been filed, it will be assigned to an HCID inspector. The inspector will ask for and review whatever documentation that tenant has to prove that their non-payment is related to COVID-19.

If everything is in order, the housing inspector will send the landlord a letter requesting the cancellation of the notice and remind them of the rules, including the 12-month period you have to pay them back.

Glendale, Long Beach, and Burbank have similar protections in place.

Can my landlord raise my rent?

If you live in a rent-stabilized apartment, the mayor has placed a temporary pause on rent increases on those units. Rents can only be raised once a year on rent-stabilized units (and then, only by a certain amount), so if your landlord didn’t raise your rent yet, they can’t do it now. Not sure if you live in a rent-stabilized apartment? Here are directions on how to find the answer.

If your apartment is not rent-stabilized, your landlord can only raise your rent as often as your lease says they can. If you are on a one-year lease, for example, and it’s not up until October, your rent cannot be raised right now.

If you’re renting month-to-month, or your lease is up on May 1, your landlord can raise your rent, but it’s possible that a state rent-cap law might affect how big that increase can be. That rule, approved in September, says that it’s illegal for landlords in California to raise rent more than 5 percent (plus the local rate of inflation) in a year.

There are a few exceptions, though: The state law applies only to buildings constructed more than 15 years ago. Single-family homes, unless they’re owned by a corporation, are exempt from the law, as are duplexes where the owner lives in one of the units.

Unfortunately, the state did not set up an enforcement mechanism for this law. If you believe you’ve been handed an illegal rent increase, state lawmakers advise that you contact an attorney.

More than 250 Los Angeles area organizations that have formed a coalition called Healthy LA argue that the measures in place do not go far enough. They’re urging local and state lawmakers to institute a rent freeze and rent forgiveness program.

These protections will ultimately be “vital to recovery,” says coalition member Ralph Jean, with the South LA-based group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect a revised order from Mayor Eric Garcetti that allows for in-person showings in some cases.