By David Wagner/LAist
Originally published July 27, 2023
Tenants in the city of Los Angeles could soon face eviction over unpaid rent from early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, the city of L.A.’s COVID-19 regulations have given renters protections from eviction over pandemic debts. But rent was never canceled — only delayed. And landlords have long complained about financial hardships stemming from unpaid rent.
Now, tenants have until Tuesday, Aug. 1 to pay landlords all of the rent they missed between March 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021. If they don’t pay those debts in full, they could face eviction.
“I am very worried about the deadline,” L.A. Mayor Karen Bass told LAist. “I’m concerned that we’re going to have another spike in homelessness.”
In the interview with LAist, Bass deferred questions on actions the city will take to help renters before the deadline to the head of the city council’s housing committee, and the CEO of the Mayor’s Fund, a nonprofit aligned with the Bass administration’s housing goals.
The city has put funding toward programs that provide legal aid and limited rental assistance for tenants facing eviction. And the Mayor’s Fund is pledging to step up ongoing homelessness prevention efforts. But other funding through the city’s new “mansion tax” will not be available to tenants by the Tuesday deadline.
Eviction filings have already been rising across L.A. County for many months. And landlord advocates say more are coming after the pandemic rent debt protections go away.
“We’re doing tons [of eviction cases] now, but there will be many new evictions that we have in the pipe to start on Aug. 2,” said prominent L.A.-area eviction attorney Dennis Block.
Block said the city’s COVID-19 restrictions have unfairly prevented many of his clients from taking action over debts that in many cases stretch back more than three years.
“When does it stop?” Block said. “And why is it the landlord’s responsibility to be financially responsible for someone else’s debt?”
Tenant advocates worry thousands of L.A. households — including those who applied to the state’s COVID-19 rent relief program but got caught in bureaucratic limbo and have yet to receive aid — could soon end up struggling to defend themselves in eviction court.
“There are still a lot of people, especially in the L.A. area, who are waiting on the government relief to pay off the debt to their landlords,” said Legal Aid Foundation of L.A. staff attorney Jonathan Jager.
“They’re not going to get the check before next week.”
For many renters, ‘trying to rebuild is not easy’
Many tenants who struggled to pay rent in earlier phases of the pandemic are in the clear, because they applied for and received rent relief funding from the state. California’s $5.2 billion program to cover pandemic rent debts up to April 2022 delivered almost $1.4 billion to tenants just within the city of L.A.
But other L.A. renters are still shouldering debts that in some cases run into the tens of thousands of dollars. According to recent U.S. Census Bureau survey data, about 339,000 households in the L.A. metro area have rent debt totaling close to $1.3 billion.
“The economic impacts definitely aren’t over,” said Cesar Alvarez, a camera operator for documentary film and TV projects who has about $18,000 due on Tuesday. “We’re still crawling out of holes. Trying to rebuild is not easy.”
Alvarez remembers the day in March 2020 when all his work suddenly disappeared.
“Everything dried up, all within less than 24 hours,” he said. “My phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Emails were coming and talking about all projects being canceled until further notice.”
After his income vanished, Alvarez informed the landlord of the Highland Park bungalow — where he has lived for the past seven years — that he would need to use the city’s protections allowing tenants to defer rent because of pandemic hardship.
He went to apply for rent relief, but by then work was picking up again, and he said the state’s website suggested he wasn’t eligible for assistance under the program’s income limits.
Alvarez is now back to regular work and paying his full rent. He adds a couple hundred extra dollars each month to chip away at his debt. But he said for tenants in his situation, repaying all of their past-due rent in one lump sum is impossible. He worries about what comes next.
“It’s going to lead to a wave of massive evictions,” Alvarez predicted. “It’s going to lead to a wave of massive homelessness. If you think it’s bad now just give it three more months.”
Second repayment deadline is coming next year
The city’s rules give tenants with more recent pandemic rent debt additional time to pay back their landlords. Unpaid rents from Oct. 1, 2021 through Jan. 31, 2023 must be paid by Feb. 1, 2024. Other parts of L.A. County have different COVID-19 repayment rules.
For tenants still struggling to pay off rental debt, limited rental assistance is available to some living in the city through the city-funded StayHousedLA.org program.
In addition, the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund For Los Angeles recently launched a $6.5 million homelessness prevention effort called “We Are L.A.” that aims to give thousands of vulnerable tenants legal assistance and get them signed up for health care, food and other public aid programs.
Mayors Fund leaders said the program does not directly pay down COVID-19 rent debt, but it has already connected more than 10,000 tenants with caseworkers who know how to buy renters more time in legal proceedings to find solutions.
“It’s another way that, at very low cost and very efficiently, the whole outreach and case management process can help avoid evictions,” said Conway Collis, chief executive officer of the Mayor’s Fund.
But other funding that could be used to clear tenants’ remaining COVID-19 debts won’t be available by the Tuesday deadline.
The city’s housing department expects to help about 3,000 households with about $20 million in emergency rental assistance during the first year of funding from Measure ULA, the voter-approved tax on property sales valued at $5 million or more. That funding could cover up to six months of back rent for eligible tenants. But the portal to apply for that funding will not be online before Tuesday’s repayment deadline.
Existing ULA tax revenue has been lower than expected. Supporters of the ballot initiative originally projected it would raise up to $1.1 billion per year. But wealthy homeowners scrambled to sell their properties before the tax took effect on April 1, and only about $38 million in revenue has been raised so far. The measure also faces legal challenges that could put funding in jeopardy.
City lawmakers are restricted under state law from pushing back the Tuesday repayment deadline. But tenant advocates say city leaders could have done more to deliver rent relief ahead of time in order to stop evictions over pandemic debt.
“They had years of time to do something like set up a local rental assistance program to help tenants pay off these debts that were not covered by the state rental assistance program, or to look at other potential ways of mitigating the harm of having all of this due on the same day,” said Jager with the Legal Aid Foundation.
Tenants rally to call for relief
Tenants like Julia Orozco fear they could soon slip into homelessness. As a street vendor, Orozco saw her income evaporate during the pandemic. She isn’t earning enough to cover the approximately $5,000 in debt coming due on Tuesday.
Orozco attended a rally last week outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A. She and other tenants called on L.A. leaders to stop the rising number of eviction filings across the city.
Speaking in Spanish, Orozco said, “It affects me a lot because my daughter asks me every day if we are going to sleep at home or if we are going to sleep on the street.”
Councilmember Nithya Raman, chair of the L.A. city council’s housing committee, said she has been working with the mayor’s office and the city’s housing department to coordinate efforts around the looming deadline. She said new renter protections passed by the council earlier this year, as well as the city’s existing Eviction Defense Program, could help many tenants.
“My hope is that the impending Aug. 1 rent debt repayment deadline actually pushes us to reshape and transform our current system into one that proactively supports vulnerable tenants to stay housed, not just at this moment but over the long term,” Raman said in a written statement.
But local landlords say their patience is wearing thin.
“Renters should have known this day was coming,” said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. “If a renter has not made at least some attempts to pay down some of this rental debt these past three years, there’s a strong likelihood that they’re not going to be able to make a lump sum payment when the due date comes.”
Yukelson said most landlords in the city are not hopeful about recovering unpaid debts. As for eviction, he said going to court for many landlords is a last resort. He said in some cases, tenants who followed all of the city’s requirements for notifying landlords about COVID-19 hardships each month may not be subject to eviction, only debt collection.
What to do if you’re at risk of eviction
The mayor’s office, in conjunction with Raman’s office, released a list of resources available to tenants on Thursday. They recommended tenants at risk of eviction reach out to the city’s housing department through appointment-only public counters or by calling 866-557-7368. They also encouraged tenants to contact their local councilmembers and sign up for tenant rights workshops put on by StayHousedLA.org.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2023 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.