Tenant advocates skeptical of state rent relief plans

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Legal advocates for tenants hoping for rental relief from the state are concerned that the $5.2 billion rental relief package approved by the state Legislature does not provide all the help tenants may need.

Rising rent prices and access to online relief forms for people with disabilities and non-English speakers have tenant advocates and lawyers wary of the scope and strength of the law.

Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, Bet Tzedek and Disability Rights California filed a complaint against the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency that administers the emergency rental assistance program, for its alleged failure “to provide meaningful language and disability access in compliance with federal and state civil rights mandates.”

Attorneys from those three legal rights groups say that to apply for rent funds, elderly low-income applicants have to navigate a cumbersome website with English-only forms, and they must provide an email address and have good internet connections, tools that many lack. In some neighborhoods, even the landlords speak poor English, leaving both parties disadvantaged.

“California has approved over $5 billion in rent relief to help families who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Tiffany Hickey, housing rights attorney with Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. “Yet, that funding and a Sept. 30 eviction moratorium extension do little to stop widespread devastation if people with disabilities, people who don’t speak English, or people without internet access can’t apply for assistance.”

The firm, with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, estimates 750,000 households are behind in rent because of COVID-19 in California.

“Since April, I have been working with monolingual Spanish-speaking clients to apply for rent assistance,” said Tracy Douglas, a registered attorney with Bet Tzedek. “My clients are older, without computer skills to access the online application. When the application was English-only with no machine translation, my clients needed assistance to even attempt completing the application.”

Inner City Law Center attorney Cherry Mullaguru said that a comprehensive eviction moratorium is a myth. The term has been hyped by the media, but unlawful detainers and eviction notices continue to be served for a myriad of reasons.

“COVID laws are helpful, but they are not full solutions,” Mullaguru said during a legal workshop for tenants sponsored by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Mullaguru advised tenants to fill in their COVID-19 declaration of losses and return it with the notice to quit within five days, make copies of all documents and follow the instructions. She recommended that tenants hire an eviction attorney, because most landlords have them.

A CalMatters analysis of evictions during the pandemic show that 2,747 eviction cases in Los Angeles County were carried out by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from July 2020 through March 2021, despite state and municipal bans where tenants had no control of economic losses incurred by shutdowns, shelter in place orders, layoffs and deaths.

Obtained through public records requests, the CalMatters data accounts for 7,677 lockouts in all but two of the 58 counties in California. The evictions total rises to 9,150 due to lack of addresses used to confirm if the evictions were residential, incomplete data and insufficient documentation to verify if the lockouts were completed.

Ana Grande, associate executive director with the Bresee Foundation, said her organization works with and supports tenants stressed by lack of technological resources, often too humble to ask for financial assistance to meet back rent on their homes.

Approved by the state Legislature June 28, AB 832 aims to cover 100% of rent due from April 2020 to September 2021, and bring relief to families burdened with economic calamities caused by the pandemic.

“Even though the economy is slowly reopening, we need the help,” Grande said. “We have essential workers, supermarket workers, school workers, janitors, who haven’t been advised to get all the aid. We are proud of the fact that we serve [tenants] regardless of immigration status.”

On its website, the Bresee Foundation reported that it distributed $5.74 million in rental aid to low-income renters in the MacArthur Park, Pico Union, Koreatown and Central Los Angeles neighborhoods from 2019 to 2020. Grande said the organization supports more the 7,000 tenants in need.

Also, a market index provided by apartementlist.com, indicated that prices for one- and two-bedroom units in the region are only 3% below what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic put a freeze on the region’s spiraling rent costs in March 2020.

The region recorded a rent growth of 1.4% in June, bringing average prices of $1,590 for a one-bedroom unit and $2,087 for two bedrooms. This is the fifth straight month that Los Angeles recorded rent increases.

Climbing rents can stall state and municipal efforts to keep families housed, particularly affecting those hauling COVID-19 long-term health effects in addition to job losses caused by the pandemic.

The California Tenants Protection Act, or AB 1482, caps rent increases at 5% in municipalities and non-incorporated zones without rent stabilization ordinances, plus the adjusted consumer price index at regional levels with a maximum of 10% rise a year.

In Los Angeles, the rent stabilization ordinance allows landlords to raise rent 3% a year.

AB 1482 took effect Jan. 1, 2020, three months before pandemic emergency closures and shelter in place orders were issued by Newsom.

Susan Shannon, executive director of the nonprofit Housing is a Human Right, said landlords cannot kick out tenants without a just cause, a protection that is part of AB 1482.

According to Local Housing Solutions, a housing policy website run by the NYU Furman Center, just cause provisions promote residential stability by limiting the grounds a landlord can cite to evict a tenant. Allowable grounds are failure to pay full rent, nuisances and intentional damage to the dwelling.

“Evictions increase homelessness, and that we don’t need,” Shannon said. “L.A. is the capital of homelessness in the state. The success of the rent program depends on how many tenants apply for aid.

The California Apartments Associations, an organization that represents landlords, investors, managers and suppliers of rental units and homes, loaded on its website forms to document claims of missed rent during the pandemic period from September 2020 to September 2021, the month the moratorium will expire.

A report conducted by Beacon Economics and commissioned by the apartment association cited data from the Census Bureau Pulse Survey that indicated 15.21% of all tenants in Los Angeles owed rent as of May 2021.

“[Workers] lost their jobs. Others were harassed by their landlords,” Grande of the Bresee Foundation said. “It’s hard to provide them all with the available resources. We are really making a good attempt to bringing affordable housing, but not enough controls have exposed the inequities we have in our society.”

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