Los Angeles is entering a second month of a devastating pandemic, and most city leaders say they’ve already done all they can to help renters.
The city has put an array of protections in place for renters, declaring that landlords cannot evict tenants who haven’t paid their rent because of COVID-19. Ellis Act evictions have been halted, and the city has paused rent increases in rent-stabilized units. Impacted renters have also been given a year to make up any rent they missed—without interest or late fees.
But a full-fledged eviction moratorium and a “freeze” on rent increases that would have covered all residential units in the city was rejected on a 7-to-6 vote Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council. Bolstered by the city attorney’s office, the dissenting councilmembers said they do not have the legal footing to make these broad moves.
“The liabilities [for the city] are very real,” Councilmember Bob Blumenfield said, adding that, in a worst-case scenario, the city could end up being required to pay for all the unpaid rent.
“If the state lifts those rules, I’ll be the first one to join you in proposing a rent freeze,” he said.
The council did move Wednesday to extend a previously approved halt of rent increases in rent-stabilized residences. Rent increases in those units will now be on hold for 360 days after the end of the “local emergency period” in effect because of the novel coronavirus. The rent-stabilization ordinance covers the majority of rentals in the city—about 624,000 residences across 118,000 buildings, according to the housing department.
A new USC survey estimates that only 45 percent of Los Angeles County residents are still working right now as the novel coronavirus wallops the economy—a 16 percent decrease from mid-March. That has strengthened calls for greater and bolder protections for tenants in a city where the majority of residents are renters.
“These are unprecedented times,” acknowledged chief assistant city attorney David Michaelson.
But he insisted that in order for councilmembers to stop evictions across Los Angeles, the governor and the state legislature would have to suspend certain laws first—among them, Costa-Hawkins, the 1995 law that dictates how cities implement their local rent control laws.
Michaelson said the governor and legislature had not taken those steps.
Councilmembers Mike Bonin, David Ryu, and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who brought the rent increase and eviction moratorium proposals to the council, disagreed.
Bonin cited a 12-page memo from public interest attorneys including Public Counsel and the Eviction Defense Network, that argues that the “period of local emergency” enacted by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and several executive orders issued by the California governor in March give the the council the authority it needs.
Bonin also pointed to the city of Oakland, which has instituted a robust moratorium on almost all evictions, with exceptions only for those where the health and safety of the building’s other occupants are in danger and Ellis Act evictions. (In the city of LA, the mayor has paused Ellis Act evictions.)
“Despite the guidance of our city attorney, we are empowered to do [this],” Bonin said.
Michaelson countered that public interest lawyers are acting in the interest of their clients, who are tenants, and that the city attorney’s job is to give the advice that’s in the best interest of the city.
“We’re just calling balls and strikes,” he said.
Harris-Dawson seized on the baseball metaphor, noting that “calling strikes and balls is subjective,” and that what is really being compared are the interpretations of the law by two different camps of lawyers.
The real issue, Harris-Dawson said, was that the City Council was very proud of how quickly it shut the city down to stop the spread of COVID-19, but that it has not acted as rapidly to help the people who are now in trouble because city lawmakers did not allow them to go to work.
“I think that’s beneath who we say that we are,” Harris-Dawson said.
“Let’s not get it twisted: We all want to provide these protections,” said Councilmember Monica Rodriguez. But she repeated that the council did not have the power to take these steps, and said that claiming otherwise would give people “false hope” and amounted to “a lapse in responsibility.”
Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who chairs the council’s housing committee, told his colleagues that it was important to “know the limits” of the council’s power.
“We don’t have time to waste with things that we know are not legal and that then could have an adverse consequence for the people we’re trying to help,” Cedillo said.
This is not the first time the council has weighed a full eviction moratorium, which, as proposed, would serve as an across-the-board stop to all evictions of any kind in the city.
Bonin had introduced a full moratorium at the March 27 council meeting. It’s “unusual” to bring back a rejected proposal, but Bonin said he did so in part because at the March meeting, there had been a disagreement about the necessity to take action.
Since then, Bonin said, there have been numerous instances of landlords not following the rules and making demands of tenants when they are not supposed to be. Critics have argued that navigating the quilt of protections in place now puts the onus—and stress—on the renter to figure out how to stay in their home.
“There is significant public interest” in calling for a full moratorium, he said.
Councilmembers Curren D. Price Jr. and Paul Krekorian recused themselves from Wednesday’s vote. Both cited their ownership of rental properties as the reason for sitting out the vote.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that 45 percent of Los Angeles County residents are not working right now. In fact, 45 percent of the population still has jobs. Due to an error in a cited source, this story also misstated that the cities of San Francisco and Oakland had banned rent increases. The San Francisco and Oakland bans apply only to rent-controlled buildings.