Tenants told to seek legal advice as rent moratoriums end

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — A panel of experts on rent relief for COVID-19 tenants hurt by illnesses and economic loss, advised county residents to get legal support and consider mediation starting Nov. 1 if they still owe money to landlords due to the impending expiration of moratoriums on using courts to collect back rents. 

As part of the webinar titled “COVID-19 Rent Debt: What You Need to Know,” Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles attorney Kelsey Atkinson said landlords will begin filing small claims lawsuits for due rent if renters failed to pay at least 25% of rent from September 2020 to September 2021.

Although landlords are still prohibited from evicting tenants who directly or indirectly suffer losses from by COVID-19 from April 2020 through September 2021, they are allowed to sue for $10,000 or more in small claims court and file multiple claims. 

Starting in March, courts throughout the state will allow landlords to file grievances requesting evictions related to COVID-19 unpaid rent. 

Unlike regular court filings that become public records, COVID-19 rent debt lawsuits will be sealed, Atkinson said.

October 2021 rent payments, or lack of them, should be documented separately, the attorney said. 

“Tenants must still pay back the remaining pending rent for the pandemic,” Atkinson said. “This is called the ‘COVID-19 rent debt’ and it is considered consumer debt.” 

One good thing about COVID-19 rent debt is that California guarantees it will cover 100% of it if qualifying households earning 80% or less of the region’s average median income had successfully applied for aid at the online Housing Is Key program, she added. 

However, if a tenant failed to apply, is unable to pay missed rent and loses the case, the court will not be able to evict that party yet. 

Landlords should provide evidence that they made a good faith effort to collect back rent using the public assistance available, and will not be allowed to charge penalties or interests during the covered period. 

Atkinson invited the audience to inquire about a series of COVID-19 rent relief workshops the Legal Aid Foundation will hold in coming weeks at (800) 399-4529.

Lorrie Blevins, section chief of Housing Is Key’s emergency assistance program, said that as Oct. 19, California has disbursed close to $900 million to nearly 79,000 households impacted by the coronavirus.

Blevins said tenants facing homelessness or reporting housing instability have sought assistance paying for utilities, another key aid component for renters who became sick, were furloughed or lost their jobs as the pandemic took hold of the economy, and non-essential businesses had to close.    

Through its No Wrong Door program activated at www.housing.ca.gov, applicants are directed to a link that asks them about income data to qualify for the assistance. 

The annual income cap is $66,250 for a single tenant, $75,000 for two residents in a household and $85,150 for three people in a hosuehold. For tenants with four household members the income limit is $94,600. 

Similarly, landlords can apply if they can provide copies of their tenants’ 2020 income tax forms, W-2 forms or 1099G if the renters are unemployed. In addition, applicants can file proof of state or federal subsidies such as CalFresh or food stamps, or show a letter of acceptance. 

Landlords should provide a copy of the rent or lease contract and a ledger showing the balanced owed, Blevins said. 

Blevins underscores a few caveats in the application process that can delay it from five weeks to two months to be approved, followed by its money disbursement.

“If the landlord does not participate, Housing Is Key reaches out to the landlord three to four times. If [the person or company] is not reached, or there is missing landlord information, we proceed with the tenant’s application,” she said. 

Currently, the COVID-19 rent relief programs has between 300,000 to 400,000 applications being processed. It includes English and links to six languages to help guide new applicants. 

Blevins said Assembly Bill 832 modified unlawful detainers  from Oct. 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, returns the three-day pay or quit notice, and allows landlords to evict tenants unable to pay 25% of due rent from September 2020 to September 2021. 

Once a landlord applies for Housing Is Key aid, the tenant has 15 days to fill the application, or faces eviction, she said.

The Housing Is Key portal has features that lets both parties verify submittal of applications, she said. 

Nick Aquino, small claims supervisor with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, said the courts eliminated caps for landlords eager to recover missed rent during the pandemic period.  

Aquino said special forms starting with the SC-500 will be used by both parties, and encouraged anyone at risk of being sued for lack of rent payment or mom-and-pop landlords to contact the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs and talk to staff “able and happy to walk you through” the process.

He said any court summons must be served five days before the hearing, by using in-person service or a substitute at the party’s home. 

Another new rule in these cases is the requirement that parties exchange and submit evidence 10 days before the hearing, and show proof of compliance like a copy of mailing from the U.S. Postal Service, Aquino said. 

Nowadays, hearings can be conducted through LA Court Connect and stay safe from gathering in courthouses. Within five days of being served, both parties are required to register with the online dispute resolution program and inquire about mediation, he said. 

Tanzila Huda, a Los Angeles County certified mediator, said anyone considering filing a lawsuit should think about seeking mediation, because it is an effective, neutral and economical way to resolve disputes of any kind. 

Mediation is a third-party impartial assistance that ensures one party hears what the other has to say in non adversarial, confidential  terms with resolutions that are enforced by the courts and do not antagonize anyone, Huda explained. 

“Mediation is an excellent alternative to going to court, before and after lawsuits are filed in court,” Huda said.  

Mediation in other languages is available for parties that request it, and can be offered to any county resident, Huda said. 

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