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Landlords want rent relief too

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Without rent payments coming in, they say they’re being forced to act like banks

The California Rental Housing Association says the solution is a relief program where the state would cover the cost of at least some of the rent and pay it directly to landlords.
By Liz Kuball

Landlords get a bad rap, but Arnold Epstein says he’s one of the good guys. He hasn’t raised the $3,700 monthly rent on his income property, a seven-bedroom house in the Valley, in 2.5 years.

When that tenant told him he wouldn’t be able to pay April’s rent because his dry cleaning business had dried up, Epstein says he felt sorry for him. “It’s terrible,” he says. “He has a family to feed.”

Los Angeles has cut renters a break: No one impacted by COVID-19 has to sign a check to their landlord right now. But with rent due on May 1, 12,000 renters across California plan to withhold payment as part of a nationwide strike to compel lawmakers to cancel rent and mortgage payments, and more landlords like Epstein are getting nervous about how they’ll pay their bills.

What City Hall did is right, Epstein says, but it’s going to hurt small landlords like him. “They’re making me the bank. And I’m not a corporation. I’m not Blackstone,” he says, referring to one of the world’s largest real estate companies. “I don’t have the wherewithal to do that.”

The California Rental Housing Association, which represents more than 22,000 rental property owners who lease out more than a half million units, and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, say the solution is a relief program where the state would cover the cost of at least some of the rent and pay it directly to landlords.

“Many landlords are so small, they’re mom-and-pops. They depend on that rent to supplement their retirement incomes and put food on their tables,” says Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Los Angeles apartment association. “They’re going to be in severe financial peril today.”

Tenant organizer Zerita Jones, a retired grocery store manager who shares an apartment with her 78-year-old mom in Baldwin Hills, is one of the leading voices in today’s rent strike. She’s not paying rent this month, but she agrees that property owners should not be left holding the bag.

“It’s not their fault. This is no one’s fault,” she says. “I think all of it should be canceled—mortgages too.”

It’s easy to see why landlords are maligned in the press. In Los Angeles, management companies have sent misleading and altogether inaccurate information to tenants about their rights during the coronavirus crisis. But some landlords are helping tenants.

Mike Werner, who owns four rental properties in West Hollywood, Hollywood, and Studio City, says he has offered to lower rent while stay-at-home orders are in place and during 90 days after that.

The associations have only come up with a framework for a relief program, but the general idea is that the state would help offset rent so property owners could stay in business, and continue to pay contractors, like gardeners and handymen.

“When there aren’t rents, the system just dies. Without the cash, we can’t keep the system running,” Werner says.

“When all of this started to happen, we downloaded all of the vendors we had used over the past few years—there were 103 local vendors. I’ve already received calls from a half-dozen begging for work,” he says.

In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti is expected to approve $1.15 million in rental assistance for residents who earn $58,540 or less a year (that’s 80 percent of the area’s median income). For qualifying tenants, the city will pay up to half of the monthly rent—up to $1,000 per month for up to three months—directly to landlords. That’s enough money to help 380 households, according to the local housing department. There are about 862,000 renter households citywide.

“There are few real offers of help being provided to rental housing providers, if any at all,” Yukelson says. “I’m the last person to advocate for socialism, but this pandemic has been very, very tough.”