More businesses are closing due to the novel coronavirus at the same time that rent is coming due—and renters across Los Angeles are trying to figure out how to move forward.
In a city where more than 60 percent of the population rents their home, local lawmakers are scrambling to expand protections for tenants, both residential and commercial. But there is no rent relief program in place yet. What the city does have right now is a set of protections against evictions.
Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the program Sunday, and with new information released Thursday night by the city’s housing department, the plan is coming into focus. The department is overseeing the roll-out, and will be in charge of looking into eviction cases.
Below, a breakdown of what protections are available to renters, how they work, and what to do if you get an eviction notice. Plus, a look at what other rental assistance programs are in the pipeline.
What does the moratorium do?
The moratorium makes it illegal for landlords to 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.
But, as of right now, you can still be served an eviction notice, and you can still receive all the paperwork associated with an eviction, says Elena Popp, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based Eviction Defense Network.
The mayor’s order has given Angelenos a tool with which to defend themselves in eviction court, but they might still have to go to court, she says—a process that is known to be prohibitively expensive.
The moratorium also buys you some time to make up and pay back any missed rent payments, because you have six months in which to repay your landlord. (Keep reading for more details on that).
The city of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID), as the overseer of the program, will be tasked with investigating these evictions.
What should you do if you receive an eviction notice?
In the mean time, and before their notice expires, tenants should also let their landlords know the reason why they haven’t paid, according to HCID. (The notice will say the number of days a tenant has to act.) Tenant advocates typically advise tenants to conduct this type of important communication with their landlord in writing.
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 to the six-month repayment plan.
What if your landlord still goes through with the eviction?
The housing department says it will provide “thorough documentation” that can be used to defend the tenant in court, and 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.
How do you prove that COVID-19 caused your loss of income?
The website for the city’s housing department offers a few examples of documentation 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.”
It’s good that the city isn’t requiring a set list of types of documentation, says Johnathan Jager from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, but he notes that it seems unnecessary to put the burden of proof on tenants while there is a statewide emergency related to the novel coronavirus.
You will eventually have to pay rent
The mayor’s directive says affected renters will have six months after the end of the “local emergency period” expires on March 31to pay back their landlords for whatever rent they missed. So renters must still pay the rent, but will have more time in which to do it.
The housing department’s instructions indicate that the tenant can use those six months to pay back 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.
The mayor’s order is valid through the end of this month, but could be extended as needed. Under the current plan, whenever the local emergency is lifted, the six-month countdown starts.
The moratorium isn’t perfect, advocates say
That time frame has some advocates worried.
The measures were “an important, initial, temporary step,” says Popp. But giving renters just six months to repay what they owe is not enough, especially after what’s likely to be a significant period of unemployment, says Popp.
Many of her organization’s clients, she says, “are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Popp fears that within the allotted time frame, evictions will be delayed, but not avoided all together.
“We’re just kicking the can down the road,” she says.
Popp says she thinks some kind of “rent forgiveness” plan would likely be needed to truly help people stay in their homes.
What if you haven’t received an eviction notice, but are worried about paying rent?
Assuming you meet all the criteria laid out under the mayor’s moratorium, the city’s housing department says if you receive a “notice to pay rent or quit” from your landlord, let them know why you can’t pay before the landlord’s notice expires.
You should also call the housing department and file a complaint.
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).
Tenants rights experts echo that it is better to take action sooner rather than later if you think you won’t be able to make your rent next month. Jager 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 some 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.
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 type of evictions are not covered under the moratorium?
The COVID-19-related protections only cover a very specific kind of eviction—for non-payment of rent stemming from a host of reasons related to the virus—but there are other types of evictions that aren’t covered.
Ellis Act evictions, for instance, which allow for landlords to clear out units or buildings to remove them from the rental market, are still allowed. At fault evictions are too. Some cities, including Santa Monica, have temporarily banned at-fault evictions. But the city of Los Angeles has not. Advocates including those at SAJE are pushing for expanded protections that include temporarily halting at-fault evictions.
What additional protections for renters or rental property owners could be coming come in the next weeks or days?
It’s possible that when the Los Angeles City council convenes at its next meeting on Tuesday, a stronger version of the eviction ban could be introduced.
State legislators are also working on a ban on commercial and residential evictions and foreclosures.
Discussions are happening now among city officials about providing renter relief in the form of money that could be used to pay their rent, among other expenses. Something like that would help apartment owners as much as tenants, Yukelson says.
Ralph Jean, director of communications for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, says that his organization wants to the city to enact a rent freeze, give tenants more time to repay rent, and cease at-fault evictions and evictions under the Ellis Act.
What about help for homeowners?
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.”
What are other parts of the region doing?
In addition to Santa Monica’s broader eviction ban, Los Angeles County has put a moratorium in place for residential and commercial evictions in unincorporated areas of the county through May 31. Inglewood has issued a 45-day eviction measure similar to the city of Los Angeles’s, which applies to evictions resulting from non-payment of rent for COVID-19-related reasons. Burbank has its own version that also applies to these kinds of residential and commercial evictions; its “ban” is effective now through April 30.