New LA program gives rent relief. But tenants must be fast and lucky to get it

The City of Los Angeles is rolling out the largest coronavirus-related rental assistance program in the country this week. Residents and housing experts are warning that it’s not enough to prevent what could be a massive wave of evictions due to the pandemic.

The city-run program is aimed at low-income renters, such as a family of four earning less than $83,000 per year, or an individual earning less than about $60,000 per year. Once a household applies and gets accepted into the program, the city will pay landlords directly up to $1000 a month to offset two consecutive rent payments. 

In a city struggling with rising rent prices, many point out that the payments aren’t a long term solution, especially when other resources, such as federal unemployment assistance, are starting to dry up.

“With people not being able to pay their rent because many of them have lost their job, they’re incurring increased debt. We’re literally on the tracks of an economic train-wreck if these eviction protections come off,” says Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival. 

A UCLA Luskin School study reported that more than 36,000 households could end up getting evicted in LA County once the city’s eviction moratorium ends next year. In addition, since the housing courts have been backlogged, housing lawyers say tenants are reporting more cases of landlords illegally locking out or harassing people who miss rent payments. 

KCRW spoke to David D., a tenant living in downtown Los Angeles who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from his landlord. He says his landlord has been harassing him after he missed a rent payment in May. 

“At first, they were hitting the walls around my apartment, kicking in my door in the middle of the night and in the wee hours of the morning. My personal mail disappeared because they were taking it. They also threw cockroaches through my door with the intention that they would crawl into my apartment,” he says. 

As stories of landlord harassment become more prevalent during the pandemic, many property owners say they feel like they have become vilified and no one is addressing their financial burdens. 

Mike Werner owns seven properties in LA and West Hollywood, totaling about 100 units. He says he’s trying to work with tenants to establish payment plans. 

While he says many of his tenants are middle class professionals who may be able to make partial payments, he’s incurred thousands of dollars in debt and has asked the bank for additional financial support for his properties. 

“Where things will end up, I don’t know. I hope they're not where they are now or that it doesn't deteriorate. But we refinance the house, we took out at the very least for us a large [house equity line of credit] loan on the house as well,” says Werner.

He adds that he worries about the fate of tenants if he must sell his properties. 

Other landlords say they have not been able to work out  payment plans with their tenants due to the eviction moratorium and all their out-of-pocket costs. 

In response, the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) is suing the city in federal court to repeal the eviction moratorium.

In the suit, the association claims the moratorium infringes on landlords’ Fifth Amendment right, preventing the government from taking their property without compensation.

Dan Yukelson, the group’s executive director, says the pause in evictions discourages tenants from working out a deal with landlords — because they don’t have to prove they are affected. 

“There's no termination on [the eviction moratorium] right now. And there's no obligation for renters to provide any information to the owners whatsoever. Not even inform them that they're not going to be paying their rent. And owners are not allowed to ask for any kind of information,” says Yukelson. “So owners are really just left in the dark. And it's impossible to operate a business if you can't communicate with your customers.”

In the past, AAGLA has successfully urged other cities in California to end their eviction moratoriums. The city of Upland repealed their eviction moratorium in April after receiving a letter from the apartment association’s attorney. 

Leaders in California have recognized the squeeze on tenants, and landlords are working on a solution. Last month, legislators held a hearing for SB1410, which would give tax breaks to landlords in exchange for not evicting tenants. Meanwhile, tenants would have 10 years to pay back their rent to the state. 

Local leaders in LA and in cities nationwide also say they are trying to find solutions to solve the current issues of the pandemic while thinking of future economic health, but they need more financial assistance from the federal government.

LA city's eviction moratorium is set to end on July 31, 2020 but may be extended on a month-to-month basis. However, the city of Los Angeles's ordinance for the eviction moratorium does not bar landlords and residents from making payment plans. According to the city's website, landlords and tenants may, but are not required to, agree to a payment plan.

For residents who cannot make payments, they are responsible for notifying their landlords within seven days, according to the guidelines. The city ordinance does not require tenants to provide landlords with documentation if they are unable to pay, but officials recommend renters keep all documentation in the event of legal action.

Clarification: This post has been updated with additional information about LA's eviction moratorium.