An impending eviction crisis threatens struggling tenants. Is rent cancellation the answer?

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Jennifer Maldonado joins demonstrators at a protest against an upcoming wave of evictions that shutdown the LA Superior Court, amid the global outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 21, 2020. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/TPX

In January, Emmanuel Limaco was living with his father, stepmother and his brother in a single-family home in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sunland-Tujunga. His father, Paul Pogue, was the sole breadwinner, running a business that produces commercial and political advertisements. That month, however, Pogue fell while in his warehouse and broke his spine in two places.

He had surgery, which went well. When COVID-19 hit the United States, however, Limaco’s father’s recovery slowed significantly. “About a month or so before he finally passed, he contracted coronavirus in one of the rehabilitation homes [where] he was in, trying to do physical therapy, so he passed away,” Limaco said.

Limaco was halfway through a civil engineering degree at Cal State LA, having gotten his life back on track after serving four years in prison for assault. Now, on top of being a full-time student, he had to become the family’s lone financial supporter, responsible for their $2,500 monthly rent. Limaco’s brother also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. If the family can’t pay rent, it would be difficult for them to find another home that accommodates his non-ambulatory state.

“The only thing I do have coming in is my financial aid, which I’m supposed to be using for school purposes,” Limaco said. “Now I’ve already wasted more than half of that trying to pay the rent off that we had been owing for a few months.”


Tenants and organizers demonstrate outside Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles early September, calling for a ban on evictions and the cancellation of rent ahead of a looming eviction crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Nicolas Emmons.

The renter’s dilemma 

A UCLA study found that around 449,000 renters in LA County were unemployed because of COVID-19 and had no income to pay their rent. Nearly all of these tenants are vulnerable to eviction, especially in communities with large percentages of low-income people of color. The impending eviction crisis could result in an estimated 120,000 households becoming homeless, including 184,000 children.

So far, there have been fewer evictions than expected. From April through the end of June, landlords filed an average of 350 eviction cases per month, down nearly 90% from last year, according to preliminary data from the LA Superior Court. This is likely because of Rule 1, which the California State Judicial Council instituted on April 6. Rule 1 suspended unlawful detainer filings until Sept. 1, when state law AB 3088 went into effect, taking tenants’ cases out of eviction court if they paid 25% of their rent from September through January. This, in addition to laws at the local level, protected tenants from getting evicted, as did an order from the Centers for Disease Control that temporarily halted evictions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network, said that these protection measures seem to have discouraged filings.

“I would describe it as a patchwork of protections that appears to be holding for now,” she said.

Yet each measure has different requirements, protections and end dates for tenants, resulting in a sense of confusion for renters trying to navigate them.

“All the laws that protect them are … a patchwork of laws that is very hard to understand. So stress — the sense of housing insecurity — is way up for people,” Popp said. She strongly encourages tenants to visit Stay Housed LA, where LA County tenants can learn about their rights and request representation from the county’s legal aid organizations.

Illegal activity has also increased. Popp said that the Eviction Defense Network has four times as many cases where tenants have been locked out of their homes or have had their utilities shut off by landlords who want them out. EDN has also seen a large increase in cases involving harassment.

Another tenant, Victoria Enriquez, faced this kind of harassment. She is the family breadwinner and guardian of her 17-year-old grandson. Before the pandemic, she cleaned homes and was a street vendor. When COVID hit, Enriquez lost all her work.

She said that her landlord has been pestering her, asking for the apartment back. He also makes a mess outside, which she sees as a deliberate attempt to get her to move out.

The last resort

Daniel Yukelson of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles said that while there are some bad actors among landlords, the majority are only trying to negotiate with their tenants, so that both parties can survive through the pandemic.

“We want to house people in our community. We want to work with our tenants if they’re having trouble paying the rent,” he said. “The eviction process is a last resort.”

He contends, however, that most protections are skewed toward tenants and that landlords have little means of collecting rent they need for mortgages and daily expenses. He’d like to see legislation that includes means-testing or tying unemployment payments to rent, as well as mortgage forbearance so property owners get a break too.

Emmanuel Limaco’s landlord, Ray Peters, recognized how hard it has been for his tenants to survive during COVID-19. He has given his tenants more time to pay their rent, including Limaco.

“I told him, ‘I’m not going to kick you out, get this thing together, you need help, you need a lawyer, you need to get assistance, you need a lot of things.’ And you know what? The young man did an amazing job pretty quickly,” Peters said. 

Any solutions to an impending eviction crisis should take landlords’ circumstances into account, Peters said. “The bottom line is: There are laws, there are rights, and both sides should have their rights. And if a landlord needs or decides they need that income, I believe there should be legal opportunities for them to do so.”

Many tenants and organizers are calling for a full cancellation of rent. Some say that because of job losses and increased expenses, they won’t be able to keep up with their rent debt, even when these protections are lifted. Limaco says that the government should be able to not only cancel rent, but to make sure that landlords are also protected.

“If the federal government is able to pass an economic stimulus package, what good is that money going to do the economy if people are just going to spend that money on rent?” he asked. “If they’re able to pass an economic stimulus package from Washington, I fully believe that they’re able to pass a rent cancellation package as well, and in that legislation take care of landlords at the same time.”

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel

Reporter:
Phoenix Tso