Advocates for tenants rights have said the government has to step up and treat the pandemic as a health crisis.
Victoria Enriquez worked as a housekeeper for many years but it never paid enough to cover a $700-a-month studio she shares with her 12-year-old grandchild in South Los Angeles. Besides cleaning houses, the 62-year-old grandmother supplemented by throwing yard sales, collecting cardboard and recycling bottles and cans.
She was getting by until she came down with bronchitis in February, leaving her feverish and with aching bones. Her doctor told her she had a virus but Enriquez never learned whether it was coronavirus. Los Angeles County authorities confirmed the first case of coronavirus on Jan. 26.
Unable to earn a living to pay rent, Enriquez has fallen into a trap like so many elderly renters facing verbal and legal threats of eviction. Enriquez, who lives in a detached unit in the back of the single-home residence, fears she and her grandchild could be left on the street during the pandemic if her landlord decided to lock her out. La Opinión was unable to get in contact with the residence owner.
“I applied for the rent relief program, but I don’t think I qualified,” Enriquez said. “They didn’t contact me.”
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A loophole in the state eviction moratorium forces hundreds from their homes after shelter-in-place orders. Without clear state orders, sheriff departments decide whether to evict.
Renter advocates such as Elena Popp, director with the Eviction Defense Network in Los Angeles, say state and local governments have to step up and treat the pandemic as what they are calling it: a health crisis. Too often, renters are evicted informally by landlords if they fall behind on rent. The Eviction Defense Network estimates there were more than 40,000 evictions in Los Angeles County in 2019. Of those, only about 5,000 were represented by an attorney.
“If this is a health crisis that can only be resolved by people sheltering in place, then we cannot have people displaced,” Popp said.
The problem is exacerbated when displaced families double or triple up with relatives, increasing the chances of infection. “If one gets sick, they all get sick,” she said.
And once evicted, many renters are thrust into an inhospitable housing market where rents are significantly higher than the last time they were searching for housing.
Informal evictions are widespread
Popp recommends Enriquez challenge her landlord’s verbal eviction notice. She says the legal process for landlords is to file an eviction lawsuit and wait a 12-month repayment period before filing the eviction order.
“So the tenant should just say ‘I’m not leaving. File your eviction action,’ and hopefully it doesn’t turn into an illegal lockup,” Popp said.
So far, stopgap measures to prevent renters from being displaced have been insufficient.
When Los Angeles’s emergency rental assistance subsidy was approved in July, Enriquez’s neighborhood had the highest number of households that received help, according to Angelina Valencia, spokesperson with Councilman Curren Price Jr., who represents District 9, where Enriquez lives.
Funded through the federal economic stimulus bill known as the CARES Act, the rental assistance program provided $103 million to help more than 50,000 households across Los Angeles.
So far, 4,005 tenants from Price’s district were approved for the program but another 3,155 are still on the waiting list, according to the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department.
“Our people are getting help as much as possible,” Valencia said. “Could we always use more help? Absolutely.”
Los Angeles was the first city in the nation to enact an eviction moratorium in response to the pandemic. In addition to rental subsidies, the city has moved to protect tenants by freezing rents on all 624,000 rent stabilized units and organizing lawyers from top law firms to provide free legal representation for tenants.
“Yet cities cannot do this alone,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “We will do everything possible to protect tenants and reinforce our safety net in L.A., but inaction in D.C. puts lives at risk. We need a new federal relief package now that helps Angelenos and Americans pay their rent and stay in their homes.”
What is needed?
Advocates for tenants rights, including Eviction Defense Network and Alliance of Californians Community Empowerment, said lawmakers should stop the displacement of tenants by extending a statewide moratorium on eviction orders known as Rule 1 and approving AB 1436, which would give tenants 12 months to repay without a court eviction.
Rule 1, created by the state Judicial Council, allows landlords to file an eviction order, but blocks a court from issuing a summons. This effectively halts evictions.
The California Apartment Association, which represents rental owners and management companies, objects to the eviction moratorium because it prevents landlords from keeping tenants safe.
“What we need is the ability to move out tenants who have created a hostile environment for the other tenants,” said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the association. “This has truly not been possible under Rule 1.”
The group says a better solution is to keep tenants housed by compensating landlords for providing that housing.
“Otherwise, mortgages won’t get paid, employees won’t get paid, and rental housing will disappear from the market,” added CAA Chief Executive Officer Tom Bannon in a statement.
Rule 1 is set to expire on Sept. 1. Tenant advocates are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to create a replica of Rule 1 to extend the period and save millions of tenants.
In Los Angeles County, about 491,000 renters are at risk of eviction if Rule 1 is not replaced. Activists say this will exacerbate the county’s homelessness crisis and worsen the spread of COVID-19, which has already disproportionately impacted Latino and Black Angelenos.
Advocates are also pressing for AB 1436 by Assemblymember David Chiu. If passed, the bill would give tenants experiencing pandemic-related financial distress 12 months to repay back rent.
Meanwhile, activists are pushing for a statewide movement. On Friday, protestors participated in a blockade, closing access to the Los Angeles County Superior Court building downtown.
ACCE organizer Sergio Vargas says the blockades serve a purpose: “This is to send a message to the governor and legislators that they have to do something.”
This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.