Originally published September 1, 2020

Los Angeles will spend $10 million on a legal defense fund for renters facing eviction, as the economic and health effects of COVID-19 push many tenants to the brink of losing their homes. 

The motion the City Council passed on Tuesday calls for a program similar to the “right to counsel” legal aid fund that tenant rights organizations have been pushing for years.

The move comes hours after Governor Gavin Newsom signed an emergency bill protecting California tenants from eviction, as long as they pay a quarter of their rent going forward. But at Tuesday’s meeting, Los Angeles council members couldn’t decipher whether the state law retroactively undermines the city’s protections, or precludes future local measures. 

“Given the new state law has many provisions, the City of Los Angeles has to be prepared to defend our renters in court and do all we can to keep people in their homes,” Council President Nury Martinez said in a statement. “Today’s vote puts us in position to do that.

The City Attorney’s Office is still analyzing the effect of the new state legislation, Martinez added.

Also on Tuesday, city leaders took a step toward spending $50 million on programs for low-income Angelenos, including the creation of a fund to help local workers who can’t apply for state or federal unemployment benefits.

The “Right-To-Recover” program would be modeled on one in San Francisco that pays people who test positive for COVID-19 to stay home if they don’t have access to sick leave or public assistance such as unemployment. Details of the Los Angeles version still need to be hammered out — the motion requires city budget analysts to report back on the feasibility of the program.

To pay for this, L.A. City Council is dipping into money Congress approved to help state and federal governments weather the pandemic — part of the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (or “CARES”) Act. The Treasury Department awarded Los Angeles County more than $1 billion from the CARES Act; the City of L.A.’s slice is just under $700 million.

So far, the city has earmarked or spent more than $445 million, including spending on homeless programs, rental assistance, and reimbursing the city for its coronavirus response. More than $125 million in CARES Act allocations are pending — including the cost of the Right to Recover program.

That leaves about $123.6 million of the federal funding, which must be spent on items that qualify as “necessary expenditure[s] incurred due to the public health emergency” between March 1 and Dec. 30 of this year. Translation: Although the pandemic has stifled tax revenues, and local governments everywhere are hurting, simple budget shortfalls do not qualify for CARES Act dollars. 

(The County released a plan for its federal dollars, including hundreds of millions for testing and public health efforts.)

— LIBBY DENKMANN

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.





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