BY LIAM DILLON STAFF WRITER
After nearly three years of COVID-19 emergency restrictions, landlords will once again be allowed to evict tenants who have fallen behind on their rent, the L.A. City Council decided Tuesday.
The unanimous vote allows the eviction protections, some of the longest-lasting in the country, to end starting Feb. 1.
The restrictions have prohibited landlords from evicting renters affected by COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. At the time, the fear was that the widespread economic damage caused by the virus could cause a tsunami of evictions that would send homeless rates soaring as well as further fuel COVID-19’s spread.
“This policy that was put into place two years ago was intended solely to keep people housed and keep them off the streets,” City Council President Nury Martinez said before the vote. “Now is time that we not only keep people off the streets but also protect people’s housing and preserve their financial well-being.”
L.A.’s eviction protections were part of a robust set of policies advanced by federal, state and local officials during the pandemic. Tenants in the city of Los Angeles received $1.5 billion in rental assistance, according to L.A. housing officials, in an effort to keep renters in their homes while also paying landlords’ bills. About 70% of tenants receiving the money were residents classified as “extremely low-income,” such as families of four making less than $35,340 a year.
But that money hasn’t been enough to cover all outstanding debts, according to landlords and tenants who spoke during more than an hour of public testimony at the meeting.
Wayne Harris, 65, a landlord who owns small properties in South L.A., told the council that some of his tenants haven’t paid rent since near the start of the pandemic, but government assistance programs have covered only half what he is owed.
“I worked hard all my life to purchase my building, not to house people rent-free,” Harris said. “If the government wants to implement something where people don’t have to pay rent, implement something where we get paid and made whole.”
The city’s eviction protections have not waived past due rent, but landlord groups said it was unrealistic to expect tenants would ultimately repay large sums and unfair for landlords to have to go years without payment. Under the plan approved Tuesday, tenants have at least until August to repay rent debt accrued during the pandemic.
Councilmember John Lee, who represents eastern San Fernando Valley neighborhoods, said that small landlords had borne too much burden from the eviction protections as the economy stabilized and vaccines became widely available.
“We are learning to live in this new normal,” Lee said. “The moratorium has served its purpose, and now it is time to move on.”
Tenants told council members that the city’s policies had been a lifeline keeping them and their neighbors from losing their homes while dealing with the economic and health ravages of COVID-19.
Teresa Roman, 50, a tenant who lives in Cypress Park, told the council that renters had struggled working minimum-wage jobs while facing continued pressure from their landlords. She said she and others feared their families would become homeless.
“We want our children to be safe,” Roman said. “We don’t want them to be on the streets.”
The council’s actions Tuesday begin to unwind a series of other protections put in place at the pandemic’s start. In February 2024, a year after being allowed to resume evictions against tenants who are behind on their rent, landlords will be able to evict tenants for unauthorized pets or residents who aren’t listed on leases. In rent-controlled apartments — about three-quarters of the city’s apartment stock — rent increases will also be allowed to resume in February 2024.
But council members agreed to move forward a permanent expansion of other eviction protections. Currently, tenants in rent-controlled apartments cannot be evicted without documented lease violations or receiving relocation assistance for owner move-ins and other “no-fault” reasons. The council voted to explore expanding those protections to tenants living in newer apartments not covered by rent control.
Many other cities across California and the United States adopted eviction protections for renters at the start of the pandemic. But they have since expired or were repealed — in some cases more than a year before L.A.’s will. L.A. County supervisors recently voted to sunset county eviction protections by the end of the year.
Some council members credited the city’s emergency eviction protections with slowing the growth in L.A.’s homeless population. Last month, officials revealed that city homelessness increased by less than 2% since 2020 to just under 42,000 people, according to the regionwide homeless count, despite the dramatic effects of the pandemic.
“The protections that the city put in place to keep renters in their homes during this time of great turbulence and uncertainty did just that,” said Councilmember Nithya Raman, who represents neighborhoods stretching from Silver Lake to Encino. “It kept people in their homes, people who might have otherwise ended up on the streets.”
Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents communities in the western San Fernando Valley, noted that tenants who spoke Tuesday rarely mentioned ongoing hardships due to the pandemic, but rather broader difficulties in L.A.’s expensive housing market.
He said that showed the council needed to turn its attention away from emergency regulations and instead toward more comprehensive policies.
“It’s no longer the COVID question,” Blumenfield said. “It’s the bigger question of housing equity.”
During the meeting, tenants also decried what they called holes in the net of eviction protections. Landlords have still been allowed to file eviction lawsuits, pulling tenants into a complicated court process, most often without a lawyer. Although the pandemic protections provided them a defense in court, tenants could lose their cases by default if their filings weren’t done properly and on time.
Cases are once again on the rise. Residential eviction filings across L.A. County in June totaled nearly 3,400, according to L.A. County Superior Court records compiled by Kyle Nelson, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA who has tracked them during the pandemic. Despite the ongoing city and county eviction protections, that monthly figure for the first time eclipsed the number of filings that occurred before the pandemic in February 2020.