LA Renters Fight Rent Hikes in Court to Avoid Life on the Streets

Tenants belonging to the Inquilinos Unidos de los Cinco Puntos Association wrap up a march through the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights to protest rent increases of up to 40% and at least 16 unlawful detainer or eviction notices filed by their landlord. (John Tapia Urquiza / Sin Turistas)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Nearly a third of Los Angeles renters spend over half their income on rent. It’s a startling figure that housing advocates say is directly connected to the homeless crisis but has gone largely untouched over the decades as rent has outpaced wages.

Maria Leon, an East LA resident and activist with community coalition Eastside LEADS, said most her neighbors are low-income immigrants who don’t understand their rights as tenants and fear rent increases.

While knocking on neighbors’ doors to explain tenant protections, Leon noticed a recently evicted woman showering her children in the public park before they left for school. Leon had faced eviction but received legal support to help her chances of finding a home.

“Seeing that upsets me because those families can’t live with that stress,” Leon said in an interview. “When people get support their demeanor changes and they feel relieved.”

About 721,000 renters sink more than half their income on rent, a figure that featured prominently in LA County’s recent annual homeless count report. The count showed a 12% increase in the homeless population since last year.

Since 2010, homelessness has increased by 52%, according to a recent report from the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel. During that time, landlords filed 505,924 evictions in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Lincoln Heights tenant and mother of three A.C. will need to take time off work for her unlawful detainer case in LA Superior Court. She’s being evicted from her apartment because she and 11 other tenants in her apartment complex are part of a rent strike to bring attention to repairs needed in their homes.

A.C. – Courthouse News is using her initials only because of her pending legal case – says there’s mold, cockroaches and bed bugs in her apartment. Promises from the landlord to fumigate or repair holes in the walls or other issues are ignored, she said.

“They would always tell us they would come tomorrow,” A.C. said in an interview. “No one would ever show. I would request days off from work and then nothing.”

A.C. – who pays $1,600 a month in rent – says she’s going to miss work either way, so she’ll spend it at court fighting her eviction.

Tenants facing eviction have limited resources according to Tyler Anderson, co-director at the LA Center for Community Law and Action.

Tenants who want to sue a landlord can expect a two-year court fight. But a landlord suing to evict a tenant can expect the case to go to trial in two to three months or less.

Nearly half of the 88 cities in LA County do not have any anti-eviction policies in place; 30% of jurisdictions have only one policy, according to a University of California, Berkeley, study.

County officials approved rent stabilization and tenant protections for unincorporated areas of LA County this past November, and voted this year to extend the protection.

Inglewood joined the county’s growing list of incorporated cities who’ve adopted rent control to make permanent a set of protections that includes relocation funds for displaced tenants and a cap on most rent increases to 5% annually.

Apartment owners oppose a permanent ordinance for the county.

Beverly Kenworthy of the California Apartment Association said she was upset by the county’s spike in homelessness. But she’s skeptical protections and legal aid will benefit tenants facing eviction.

“Landlords are not in the business of evictions because it’s a costly and long process,” Kenworthy said in an interview.

In a statement, LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis said the county assists tenants facing eviction or ones who have already been evicted with emergency rent payments, but acknowledges more should be done.

“There is a tremendous need to protect renters, especially those who are on the brink of eviction,” Solis said, adding the county is also exploring “eviction defense” programs for tenants. The county also funds tenant’s rights workshops.

Lincoln Heights tenants began a rent strike this past February because landlord Ken Wong planned to raise the cost of rent to around $2,000 by the end of the year despite mold, rodent and insect infestations. An email to Wong’s attorney for comment was not answered by press time.

Painter Felipe Navarette, who lives with his two teenage children and brother at the apartment complex in Northeast L.A., said he knew little about the eviction process and courts before the strike began.

“It’s a little bit hard and takes a lot out of you, but it’s not impossible,” Navarette said in Spanish. He successfully defeated his eviction in court and a jury found Wong breached Navarette’s right to a livable, safe and clean apartment. Navarette and the other tenants are represented by the LA County coalition Eviction Defense Network.

The tenants still facing eviction say they’re scared as each of their unlawful detainer cases will go to trial.

Glendale Community College student L.C., 19, works at a bakery and is the sole provider for her mother and three siblings. The family pays $1,675 a month in rent. The strike made sense after months of being ignored by their landlord, she said.

“The roof was turning black because of all the water that was stuck there. The roof was starting to smell, and my sister has asthma,” L.C. said in an interview. She said she doesn’t know where her family will go if they’re evicted because rents in her neighborhood have risen so much.

Other tenant strikes have been successful, and the Inquilinos Unidos De Los Cinco Puntos (United Tenants of Five Points) Association wants to expand its strike to include other properties owned by Wong.

L.C. is optimistic because of Navarette’s win in court.

“It gives hope to all the tenants that we shouldn’t give up. We must all be united and keep going together,” she said.

%d bloggers like this: