April 25, 2017. Tenants and activists protest in front of building whose owners are demanding sudden rent increases of up to 80%. Photo from Facebook/Carlos Ortez.

By Matt Tinoco/LAist

Originally Published on April 15, 2020

If you can’t make rent, you’re not alone. Nearly one third of all households renting apartments in the United States couldn’t make rent on April 1, according to the Wall Street Journal. Another survey by Apartment List found that one in four American households — both renters and homeowners — weren’t able to pay their April housing bill.

It’s a stressful time, especially if you’re worried about losing your home. So, we’ve put together some basics to help keep your anxieties at bay.

Here’s a short list of critical things to know if you’re a California renter right now:

  1. During this emergency, you cannot be evicted from your home for not having paid rent.
  2. Evictions are on hold until 90 days after the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, except those dealing with public health and safety
  3. If you cannot pay rent, you must notify your landlord in writing ASAP.
  4. Landlords can legally start eviction proceedings during this time, but the soonest a court might issue a summons would be 90 days after the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency.
  5. Landlords cannot change the locks or remove your property from your unit.
  6. Only the local sheriff’s department has the authority to legally lock you out.
  7. You are legally responsible to repay all rent missed during the pandemic after the emergency is over.
  8. Depending on where you live you may have a grace period of up to one year to pay it back.
  9. Do not sign anything from your landlord without first consulting an attorney.

Here’s the longer, detailed list of critical things to know if you’re a California renter right now:

I didn’t pay my rent this month. Am I going to lose my home during the pandemic?

The short answer is no, you will not get kicked out of your home during the pandemic.

On April 6, California’s Judicial Council ruled that summonses for any new eviction lawsuits will not be processed in court until at least 90 days after the state’s Governor has declared the emergency has ended. (The only exception is if the eviction is considered necessary to protect public health and safety.)

This means that, in effect, eviction courts are closed down. Even if a landlord files a new eviction lawsuit (as they are legally allowed to as of this writing), the machinery of the state’s eviction court system will not be functional until, at the soonest, three months after the COVID-19 emergency is over.

More information on the Judicial Council rule change can be found at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. For property owners, the rule change also bars any court in California from issuing judgments or decisions in foreclosure cases.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the agency responsible for enforcing evictions in L.A. County, announced in March that all eviction enforcements are “on hold” until further notice.

An executive order by Governor Gavin Newsom also bars law enforcement departments from enforcing evictions on those unable to pay rent due to lost income because of COVID-19 during the emergency.

How should I communicate with my landlord?

You should communicate in writing whenever possible, including emails and text messages. If you haven’t yet notified your landlord that you cannot pay rent due to the pandemic, do that immediately. However, you are not legally required to provide documentation that proves you cannot pay at this time.

Moreover, if you are asked to sign something, you should consult an attorney before signing anything. Remember that you cannot be evicted for non-payment of rent during the COVID-19 emergency.

I’ve received a 3-day notice to pay rent or quit – what should I do?

If a 3-day notice to pay rent or quit is posted on your front door, know that that document is the formal start of the eviction process. If you don’t pay within three days, that gives the property owners legal grounds to begin an eviction lawsuit.

Typically, tenants are required to respond to a lawsuit within five days or face an automatic judgment. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, automatic judgments have been temporarily halted. Eventually, tenants will be required to respond to any lawsuit filed during the emergency, however the five-day clock will not begin until 90 days after the governor lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency.

My landlord is  harassing me, what can I do?

Document everything.

Harassing a tenant for the purpose of getting them to vacate a unit is illegal under California law. If tenants can prove in court that they were harassed, they are entitled to up to $2,000 per instance of documented harassment.

It is illegal for a building owner to remove a tenant’s property from a unit, to change the locks on a unit, to enter a unit without notice, to threaten to call immigration authorities on a tenant, or to otherwise threaten and intimidate a tenant into leaving. If this happens, your best bet is to document with a time and date, and pictures and videos if possible.

Remember that only the local sheriff’s department can conduct a legal eviction.

If you live in the City of Los Angeles, you can report illegal evictions to the city’s Housing and Community Investment Department.

If you feel immediately threatened, call 911.

Am I responsible for paying missed rent in the future?

For now, the answer is yes. But depending on the rules in your local city, you may have a grace period after the emergency is over to pay rent missed during the COVID-19 emergency. In the City of Los Angeles, for example, tenants who can show they lost income because of the pandemic will have 12 months to repay missed rent. If you live outside L.A. proper, check the website of your local city council for more information. On April 14, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved new rules that extended the 12-month repayment window to most cities in L.A. County, unless an individual city passed stronger rules.

That means showing proof of lost income, and being prepared to do so in court. Evidence of that includes: termination notices, payroll checks, pay stubs, bank statements, medical bills, or signed letters or statements from an employer or supervisor explaining your changed financial circumstances. These documents do not have to be provided to building owners in advance.

Rules on repayment differ city to city, and county to county. As of this writing, there has not been any standardized rule from either the state or federal government, though this page will be updated if one comes.

When the emergency is over, tenants will once again need to pay rent immediately, as they did before the pandemic.

Tenant advocates, including the coalition Healthy LA and the L.A. Tenants Union, are also pushing strongly for full rent forgiveness during the COVID-19 emergency, which would effectively waive missed rent during pandemic.

What other resources are available

The Los Angeles Tenants Union has made available an extensive guide (in several languages)for those unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 emergency. There are also template letters for communicating with your property manager.

The Los Angeles City Housing Department has more information for tenants living in the City of Los Angeles.

There are also many legal groups that provide free or low cost aid to tenants. Some of these are: the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Eviction Defense Network, and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

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

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