City Council approves tenant protection package

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The City Council voted Jan. 20 for a package of permanent tenant protections in Los Angeles, aiming to assist renters as the local state of emergency due to COVID-19 is set to expire at the end of the month.

The council voted 12-0 — with two recusals — for an ordinance to be drafted to implement the protections. It then went into recess while staff worked to immediately prepare the ordinance, which was later also adopted unanimously. The protections, which await Mayor Karen Bass’ signature, are expected to be in effect prior to the expiration of the state of emergency.

The protections include three key items that tenant advocates have called for — universal just cause to require a reason for evictions, relocation assistance if a tenant cannot pay rent increases of a certain amount and a grace period of one month before evictions due to nonpayment of rent.

Councilwoman Nithya Raman, who was among the council members leading the push for the protections, called it a “big change for the city of L.A. in terms of expanding tenant protections, and it’s something I think we can all be proud of.”

The council was under pressure to implement protections after voting to end the state of emergency on Feb. 1, a decision that also sunsets the temporary protections that have been in place since the start of the pandemic.

“Normally, we’d have a lot of time to vet this, but we are under the gun because the moratorium is going away,” Councilman Bob Blumenfield said. “We want to get something in place right away.”

The protections will cover around 400,000 new units across the city. There are now around a million regulated housing units in Los Angeles — the biggest inventory of regulated housing of any city in the country aside from New York City, according to Anna Ortega, a housing department official.

“That’s massive, in terms of operations,” Ortega said.

Supporters packed the chamber to urge the council to adopt the protections.

“Tenants need relocation assistance when they are pushed out … with no other options,” said Karina Lopez with the People’s Project. “Renters make up the majority of Los Angeles and all of them are workers. If you care about workers rights, you need to care about tenants’ rights as well.”

Tenant groups feared a wave of evictions once the long-standing protections expire. The volume of eviction filings has begun to resemble pre-pandemic levels, according to Kyle Nelson, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA and a member of the LA Renters’ Right to Counsel Coalition.

Nelson, who has compiled data on evictions in Los Angeles County during the pandemic through court filings, said the number of filings could increase to levels not seen since the Great Recession — which contributed to more than 72,000 eviction filings in 2008. According to the National Equity Atlas, there are 226,000 households in Los Angeles County behind on rent.

Maria Briones, a street vendor, told the council that without protections, “I’ll be out on the streets.”

Just cause protections previously did not apply to apartment buildings built after 1978. The protections would not kick in until after the expiration of the lease or after six months, whichever comes first. The draft ordinance had called for immediate protections, but several members had concerns about unintended consequences on short-term leases.

The council floated different timetables for when the just cause protections would begin, ultimately voting 11-1 for an amendment by Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez to reduce the amount of time before just cause takes effect from a year — which was the recommendation made by the housing committee — down to six months.

Fred Sutton, senior vice president of local public affairs for the California Apartment Association of Los Angeles, called the additional tenant protections unnecessary and susceptible to confusion. He claimed that the length of the pandemic-era tenant protections will make housing harder to find and more expensive — because landlords have not been able to raise rent to keep up with the rise in inflation.

“It is just to be compensated for your work, labor and time,” Sutton said. “The fabric of a trusting and reliable economy depends on the expectation that you are paid for services performed. The proposal is picking an arbitrary threshold, which will ultimately hurt those that it intends to help.”

The council also sought a report back from the city’s housing department on potential steps to establish a relief assistance program for small landlords.

Under the ordinance, if a landlord increases rent by more than 10% or the Consumer Price Index plus 5%, they must pay the tenant three times the fair market rent for relocation assistance, plus $1,411 in moving costs.

According to the city’s housing department, fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is $1,747 and $2,222 for a two-bedroom.

This protects an additional 84,000 rental units in Los Angeles that were built after 2008.

When Councilman John Lee said he was concerned about the legality of providing relocation assistance, Blumenfield — serving as acting council president because both Council President Paul Krekorian and President Pro Tempore Curren Price had recused themselves — said the risk was worth it.

“I’m willing to take that risk and move us forward,” Blumenfield said. “I do recognize, like a lot of things, we are breaking some ground as a city and we’re taking a chance. But we’re doing it because we think it’s worth that risk.”

The third protection would allow tenants behind on rent to stay in their apartments for a month, unless they owe more than one month’s worth of fair market rent.

The council voted 12-0 in October to approve a package of recommendations from a council committee to sunset the renter protections. 

Under that action, landlords will be able to resume increasing rent on rent-controlled apartments, which account for three-quarters of the units in Los Angeles, beginning in February 2024.

Tenants who have missed payments since March 2020 will have to meet two repayment deadlines. Under state law, they have until Aug. 1, 2023, to pay back missed rent between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. Under the city’s moratorium, tenants will have until Feb. 1, 2024, to repay rent accumulated from Oct. 1, 2021 to Feb. 1, 2023.

“We made the tough choice to end the moratorium, which I thought was the right thing,” Councilman Tim McOsker said. “But we also committed that we were going to put renters’ protections in place — and we did that.”

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