In 2020, during the first months of COVID-19, authorities were scrambling. In a few short weeks, 1.5 million Californians lost their jobs. In Los Angeles, there was concern that this chaos would trigger a sudden avalanche of homelessness.
“Even before the pandemic, the high cost of housing in California placed renter households in a precarious position, particularly the 1.5 million low‑income households who paid at least half of their income toward housing,” stated the California Legislative Analyst in the April 2021 report, “How Has COVID‑19 Affected Renters and Homeowners?”
Families hit by the coronavirus were struggling financially. Many of them couldn’t pay their rent.
By January 2021, 5% of California renters (240,000 households) had accumulated several months of unpaid rent due to COVID‑19.
In the next 40 months, the city, county, state of California and the federal government produced what I consider three distinct sets of regulations in an attempt to ameliorate this crisis.
The first regulations were aimed to help renters by enacting a moratorium on evictions for those who could not pay rent because of circumstances related to COVID, like the closure of their workplaces and sometimes their children’s schools, as well as additional medical expenses.
Federal assistance for those making less than $50,000 a year and Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefit payments stabilized finances for many households and prevented foreclosures, mortgage delinquencies and renters’ evictions.
However, those benefits were denied to undocumented immigrant families.
In March 2020 Congress passed the CARES Act, which forbade eviction of tenants living in properties with mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). It was ended the next year by the Supreme Court. The moratorium was later enacted by 41 states. Of them, 27 ended it the same year. California maintained this until March 31, 2023.
In addition, the government provided some direct assistance to tenants. The County provided a $117 million Rent Relief Program for income-eligible renters impacted by COVID-19, and helped tenants with free legal representation and short-term rental assistance through the program Stay Housed LA.
City assistance was provided through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program using federal and state funds distributed by lottery.
The state launched several programs, chief among them under the Tenant, Homeowner and Small Landlord Relief and Stabilization Act of 2020 (AB 3088 by then Assemblywoman and today Congresswoman Judy Chu), that forbade evictions “if (the) tenant returns declaration of hardship under penalty of perjury”. Some tenants had to pay at least 25% of the rent.
This law benefitted all renters, including the undocumented.
The state also helped renters in accordance with Senate Bill 91, “Housing is Key”, using federal funds to support income-qualified residential tenants and certain property owners.
Finally, in late 2020, the federal government authorized $25 billion for emergency rental assistance, and California received $1.6 billion for lower income renters.
Today, according to CalMatters, “across California nearly 600,000 people owe a total of $2.1 billion in back rent, researchers say. In Los Angeles city and county, nearly 200,000 people owe more than half a billion dollars in unpaid rent.”
The end of the Moratorium
Almost three years later, as COVID-19 receded and the economy began to recover, the County ended the eviction moratorium. March 31, 2023, was its last day. After that, evictions have resumed for those who fail to pay their rent.
The Los Angeles City Council also extended the eviction protection until March 31 while at the same time making many of the temporary renter protections permanent.
Those living In the City of Los Angeles have until August 1, 2023 to pay back rent from March 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021 and until February 1, 2024 for unpaid rent accumulated between October 12, 2021 and January 31, 2023.
Even if spread among several months, this additional burden may be too much for thousands of families that have already been struggling since the onset of COVID, especially those left out of federal help such as undocumented families.
Assistance for Property Owners
The third set of regulations, still in its infancy, aspires to help owners of small properties who bore the brunt of the rental housing crisis.
By the end of January 2023, LA council members Bob Blumenfield, Monica Rodriguez, Traci Park, and Tim McOsker, seconded by John Lee, called for the city to establish a “$10 million assistance program to provide direct payment to small landlords waiting on rent due from tenants since the beginning of the pandemic.” Through the establishment of the Small Housing Provider Assistance Program, the plan would help owners of “no more than four dwelling units.”**
As for LA County, on February 2nd it approved to “look to identify and allocate” at least $45 million dollars … for a “relief fund for independent, mom-and-pop owners who have been unable to collect rent from some tenants… to repay past due rent owed by renters in Los Angeles County from April 2022 forward due to COVID-19 and L.A. County’s related emergency moratoriums”.
This motion was written by Supervisors Barger and Mitchell. With the allocated funds, up to 1,328 rental housing owners would receive up to $30,000 per unit.
But the money hasn’t been approved yet. And the amounts being considered by both governments are just a drop in the bucket.
In comparison, in the same county agenda another motion would provide almost $35 million annually to pay for private attorneys to fight evictions.
Even if both motions were approved now and money allocated, for tens of thousands of small owners of rental units these programs would come too late. They already sold their properties or lost them to foreclosure.
They couldn’t collect rent but in the meantime, they still had to pay mortgages, taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance. Many had to fix damages to the properties in order to sell them, adding additional expenses. And others were forced to sell, even with tenants not paying rent and still living there.
Many of these units were snatched up by deep-pocketed developers, corporations or banks, taking this housing out of the rental market and worsening the availability of rental housing.
The government could have helped the owners by paying them rent during COVID. Or even part of it. It didn’t happen. It also could have established a mortgage moratorium or forbearance for those owners, making the banks pay.
Yes, preventing evictions during the pandemic was necessary.
According to the study “Breaking the Fall” by Daniel Flaming, Seth Pickens and Patrick Burns with The Economic Roundtable, between 2020 and 2022, without the help to renters during COVID the increase in homelessness would have climbed to 23%. Instead it grew by 12%.
But why did only small property owners have to pay for it? These individuals are very different from corporate owners. Many of them are immigrants. Many turned their garages into rental units. Or worked hard and purchased a 4-unit building, often living in one and renting the others.
“In fact we are more similar to our tenants than not,” said activist Diane Robertson, founder of Small Rental Owners.
Even the city recognizes that “First-generation Angelenos and immigrant families often see property ownership as a pathway to grow inter-generational wealth and as an aid in closing the racial wealth gap by disrupting intergenerational cycles of poverty.”
The moratorium on evictions may have caused irreparable harm to this group. But no harm was done to the companies that bought their properties.
In practice, what the city, the county, and the state did was to make rental payments optional. But they didn’t provide the necessary tools to divide the burden fairly.