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Without Rent Forgiveness, Experts Say Homelessness Will Just Get Worse

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The following article was originally published April 6, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Matt Tinoco

Unless politicians strengthen emergency tenant protection laws to include forgiveness for back rent owed, experts and advocates warn that Los Angeles (and California) could see a huge surge in homelessness in the near future.

The problem is that renters are still responsible for rent missed during the COVID-19 emergency, as the laws are written right now in many jurisdictions. While they don't have to pay during the emergency, the clock for repayment — 12 months in the City of Los Angeles — begins ticking as soon as the emergency is over.

"My expectation is that when the moratoriums expire, and people aren't able to pay the rent, there will be an enormous number of eviction cases, and a tsunami of homeless people who have fallen out of the economy," said Gary Blasi, a professor of law at UCLA.

"Not every tenant, obviously, will become homeless right away. But the number of those who are just on the precipice, and were on the precipice before, and will fall off, will be an enormous number."

RENT BURDENED

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic tanked the American economy and sent millions to unemployment offices, Greater Los Angeles was already one the most rent-burdened metropolitan areas in the United States.

Almost one-third of all renting households in Los Angeles and Orange counties pay more than half of their household income on rent, according to Harvard University.

In Los Angeles County, at least 600,000 people live in households where 90% of all income is spent on housing, according to the Economic Roundtable. In these situations, other household expenses like food and health care are typically picked up by public programs like CalFresh and Medi-Cal.

Emergency rules were passed in March by the L.A. City Council, which protected tenants who can prove they have lost income due to the pandemic from eviction for non-payment of rent.

Once the emergency is over, they have a 12-month grace period during which to repay rent missed during the emergency.

On Monday, that protection was further strengthened by California's Judicial Council, which effectively halted all eviction trials in the state until 90 days after Governor Newsom lifts the state of emergency.

However, the moratorium is still temporary. When the emergency is over, tenants will still have to fight eviction and pay significant back rent.

A tour bus passes a homeless encampment located beneath an overpass on June 5, 2019 in Los Angeles. | Mario Tama/Getty Images via LAist
A tour bus passes a homeless encampment located beneath an overpass on June 5, 2019 in Los Angeles. | Mario Tama/Getty Images via LAist

KICKING CAN DOWN THE ROAD

"It does not establish any new tenant rights or defenses to an eviction when tenants are unable to pay," said Doug Smith, a staff attorney with Public Counsel.

"State legislation and local eviction moratoria are still needed to prevent the filing of eviction actions and to provide tenants with a complete affirmative defense against any evictions during the emergency, to ensure we aren't just kicking the can down the road and facing an onslaught of evictions when the crisis is over," said Smith.

Laura Raymond, director of the equity advocacy alliance ACT-LA, says that many people won't be able to clearly demonstrate that they've lost income because of COVID-19, nor will they be able to make up unpaid rent when the emergency is over.

"They are really anxious right now about what will happen if they will get an eviction order," said Raymond. "It's people whose business has completely dried up, street vendors, people who are self-employed, or those who work in the informal economy."

Raymond and Smith are both part of a broader coalition of Southern California organizations that have banded together in recent weeks under the moniker "Healthy L.A."

One of the group's key demands is pushing for full rent forgiveness — meaning tenants would not be held responsible for missed rent during the pandemic.

"So that people could just pause right at this time. There's so many people with no income, and there's no way to save up during this time," said Raymond.

Local politicians like David Ryu and Mike Bonin are also pushing for forgiveness.

Raymond says that all housing payments, both rents and mortgages, should be forgiven during the emergency.

Smith agrees, and says that while the eviction protections passed thus far are an "important first step, it's incomplete."

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