On Wednesday, April 7, Los Angeles City Council Member David Ryu conducted a telephone Town Hall meeting to provide information on issues relating to rental property during the COVID-19 crisis, and to answer questions from both renters and landlords about the latest rules.
Remarks from Panelists
After welcoming participants to the call, Ryu quickly turned the microphone over to Anna Ortega, Director of Rent Stabilization for the City of Los Angeles. Ortega outlined the current rules the city has put into place to protect renters during the current crisis:
- As of March 4, no rent increases are allowed in rent-controlled properties (those built before 1978, which are subject to the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance).
- Tenants cannot be evicted for non-payment of rent during the crisis, if the non-payment is due to lost wages or reduced hours of employment
- “No-fault” evictions (including those using Ellis Act guidelines to remove units from the rental market) are not allowed during the crisis
- Nuisance-related evictions are also not allowed during the crisis, if they are related in some way to the crisis (e.g. moving in additional family members or pets, who may not have anywhere else to go)
- The Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, which oversees rental activity in the city, is taking complaints from tenants who feel their landlords have violated the rules. You can contact the department at (866) 557-7368 or [email protected]
Next, Ryu introduced Larry Gross, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a Los Angeles tenants’ rights organization that has been in operation for 47 years.
Gross said that “unfortunately, not all tenants and landlords know their rights” in the current situation, and that his organization received “hundreds of calls” about rental issues in just the first three days of this month.
Gross stressed that while, as Ortega said, tenants cannot be evicted for non-payment of rent at the moment, tenants who do find themselves unable to pay should provide notice of that fact to their landlords. In addition, he explained that beyond the eviction ban, it is also illegal for landlords to request proof or documentation of the inability to pay their rent, or to force tenants to sign repayment agreements for missed rent before the crisis is over. And he, too, urged tenants who feel their landlords have violated the rules to file complaints with the HCID, saying he’s seen a lot of now-illegal 3-day notices to pay rent or be evicted.
Finally, Gross also explained that the current delayed payment rules for rent are not the same as rent forgiveness (under the current rules, tenants who don’t pay rent will still owe those payments after the COVID-19 crisis ends, whereas rent forgiveness would cancel the debt entirely). But he said that he, Ryu and other city officials are working on new proposals for actual rent forgiveness.
The third speaker on yesterday’s agenda was Skip Koenig, Director of Litigation and Policy Advocacy for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles.
Koenig agreed with Gross that he’s been seeing “tremendous amounts of confusion” about the current rules for rent payments, evictions and other renter-related issues. He confirmed that the California Judicial Council, which sets rules for enforcing statewide legal policy, has ruled that courts in California won’t issue summons for eviction complaints until 90 days after the crisis orders are lifted. But he clarified that the courts are still accepting formal eviction complaints from landlords, and those complaints, when filed, will still be forwarded to tenants…just without the usual summons to appear in court. Koenig also stressed, though, that tenants who receive copies of such complaints DO NOT have to formally respond at this time…and if anyone has questions about the issue, they should contact NLSLA at (800) 433-6251 or http://www.nsla.org.
After those opening remarks, Ryu thanked the speakers, acknowledging that “this is a crisis like we’ve never seen before,” and reminding the audience that he was a renter most of his life – raised in a family of 6 in a two-bedroom, 700-square foot apartment. So “I remember,” he said. “I’ve got your back. And the LA City Council has your back…to make sure you are protected and you are served.”
Questions & Answers
Next, Ryu opened the session to questions from stakeholders, some of which had been submitted in advance of the meeting, and some of which were asked by live callers. Among the issues covered:
Doesn’t the current rent forebearance plan (which will require catching up with overdue payments after the COVID-19 crisis) just put teants deeply into debt, from which they might never recover?
Ryu said he would like to find a way to reclassify overdue rent as “consumer” debt, which allows more workable payment schedules, and is easier to recover from, credit-wise, than rent debt under traditional credit policies. But Ryu said he is also working for new rules that would allow both rent and mortgage forgiveness during the crisis, to protect both renters and their mom-and-pop landlords even further. If rents are allowed to pile up too far and still owed at the end of the pandemic, Ryu said, “most people will never get themselves out of that kind of debt.” “We need to bail out Main Street,” he said, stressing that any further federal stimulus bills should include that kind of relief for individuals, instead of focusing on support for banks and big businesses.
The other panelists agreed with Ryu, saying their organizations, too, are working toward the same goal, and that the current policy of deferring rent, while helpful, does not go nearly far enough.
Do tenants have to provide documentation of their financial situation to their landlords?
Gross repeated that under the current city ordinance, tenants DO NOT have to provide any written documentation to their landlords, but he said it is a good idea for tenants to keep that kind of documentation for their own records, in case a landlord does try to bring a legal action at some point in the future. He also stressed again, as he had earlier, that landlords can also not ask tenants to sign repayment plans for missed rent at this point, since no one knows yet how long the crisis will last, or how long the non-payment will continue.
Also, noted Koenig, many tenants can’t provide such documentation, either because they work “gig” jobs that don’t provide it, or they have limited English-language skills.
Ryu said that if tenants do get such requests or contracts from their landlords, his office will help fight the requests. “If you think that something smells a little fishy, and doesn’t look right,” he said, “contact us.”
Won’t rent freezes or forgiveness hurt the economy in the long run…and thus hurt both landlords and tenants?
Ryu agreed there can be a “domino effect” from such measures, if you help one group of people without helping others at the same time. (For example, if you allow tenants to skip rent payments, while landlords are still required to make their mortgage payments, landlords could lose their buildings and tenants could suffer.) Ryu said that’s why he’s working for both rent and mortgage forgiveness during the crisis, along with help for small businesses. He noted that while many tenants were already unable to make their rent payments on April 1, May 1 will be an even more critical deadline to have further protections for in place for both groups, because even more people will be unable to make their payments by then. Forgiveness, rather than delayed payments, Ryu said, will help money “trickle up” from renters to landlords to banks, which are better equipped than individuals to handle the losses. “This is the time to bail out the actual American citizens,” he said.
I can’t pay my rent this month – are there any resources to help me?
Lily Choi, a Neighborhood Legal Services benefits attorney invited by Ryu, noted that the state of California has made more unemployment benefits available, and for longer periods of time, during the COVID-19 crisis. More information can be found at http://www.edd.ca.gov. There are also government-provided resources such as food stamps, Cal Works benefits, and General Relief, for those who need help making ends meet.
Some people will have to move during the crisis, but some landlords are still charging penalties of a month’s rent to break their leases. Can they do that?
Ryu agreed that many people unable to sustain their own homes will need to move in with friends, family or parents during the crisis, and that the fees for breaking leases are indeed unfair under the circumstances. He said that this is another area he is working to address, though no new policies have been set yet.
Since there are still some differences between state and local goverments regarding rent payments and repayment, which cause a lot of confusion for both renters and landlords, are there any templates available for tenants to use to communicate with their landlords, and vice versa?
Ortega noted that HCID does have a form that renters can (and should) use to notify their landlords if they can’t pay their rent. It’s at https://hcidla.lacity.org/system/files_force/documents/covid-19_eviction_protections_fact_sheet.pdf and includes a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the new rent payment rules.
Are there good key phrases for renters to use in their communications with landlords?
Calvin Bryne, another attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services, said there are four categories of hardship that qualify for the current rent deferments: income reductions because of loss of work or work hours, income reductions due to treatment of the disease, extra expenses for child care, and other reasonable expenditures due to the current stay-at-home order (such as, Ryu added, not being able to work because you have to stay home with children). So those would be good to mention in a letter to a landlord.
What about mom-and-pop property owners, who not only have mortgage payments to make, but expenses such as property taxes, utility bills, and maintenance and repairs…which they can’t afford if there’s no rent coming in?
Ryu said that’s exactly why he’s pushing for both rent and mortgage forgiveness during the crisis, with no late fees or penalites. He noted, though, that while the City Council can make rules for rent payments, rules for mortgage and property tax payments are handled at the state and federal levels, which makes those things more difficult to accomplish.
Our landlords sent out a note saying only emergency repairs will be made during the crisis…and I have a leaky shower that’s damaging a wall.
Gross said he’s “seeing a lot of this,” and Ortega said renters can file complaints about such neglect at HCID (see contact info above). Ryu said his office can help, too – those having such problems should write to [email protected] or see http://www.davidryu.lacity.org.
What about renters who live in buildings built after 1978 and not covered by current city rent control ordinances?
Ryu said this is why he’s been pushing for to extend the current emergency measures to all rental units in the city…and to extend those protections on newer buildings even after the COVID-19 crisis. For the moment, though, the new rent deferment rules do apply only to rent-controlled properties.
A full recording of yesterday’s Town Hall call can be found here.
Contact information for the three major participants:
Anna Ortega, Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department
Skip Koenig, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County