LOS ANGELES (CN) — An angry crowd gathered outside the grand Getty House in Los Angeles where Mayor Eric Garcetti lives, looking for answers on rent.
The global pandemic has devastated the job market across the country and on Aug. 14 the California Judicial Council, the policymaking arm of the state’s court system, could vote to dissolve a statewide eviction freeze.
Once that protection is lifted, evictions for nonpayment will flood court systems across the state and tenants will need to turn to their local governments for some type of relief.
“Everything is falling apart and fucking Garcetti and the city don’t do anything,” said Abel, a 22-year-old former waiter who was laid off in April and is unable to pay his full rent on an apartment he shares with two roommates. Abel does not want his full name published due to fear of retaliation from his landlord.
“I’m not special, OK. There’s a bunch of people who can’t make rent. If I become homeless, I’m going to set a tent right here,” Abel said, stomping his foot outside the mayor’s mansion at a protest in late July.
Roughly 66,000 people are homeless in LA County and 41,000 in the city according to data released January, but those figures do not factor in the economic fallout from Covid-19.
Estimates vary but hundreds of thousands of tenants in LA County could be kicked out of their homes for nonpayment during the pandemic.
Elena Popp, attorney with the Eviction Defense Network, said Governor Gavin Newsom has provided little to no help for tenants across the state, and the only official action stemming the flood of evictions was the judicial council’s Rule 1 that froze evictions in March.
“Rule 1 was a tourniquet on a gaping wound, or to mix my metaphors, stopped a 365,000 to 600,000 eviction tsunami that would have hit our shores in the first week of April, May, June or July,” Popp said in an interview. “Our local elected officials looked at that wound and said, ‘Hey, let’s put a Band-Aid on that.”
The city of LA will pay $103 million in rental assistance for 50,000 randomly selected families. The city will pay up to $2,000 in rent for tenants who applied last month to be part of the program.
More than 100,000 people applied when the application window opened, according to city officials. The program is meant to stem the deluge of evictions, but could have been spent somewhere else, according to Gary Blasi, UCLA professor emeritus and lead author of the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy study “UD Day: Impending Evictions and Homelessness in Los Angeles.”
“That money could have been spent on subsidizing out-of-work residents,” Blasi said in an interview. “It really is just a $100 million transfer of money to landlords and will only temporarily delay evictions.”
According to available data, the best-case scenario shows 200,000 to 600,000 people will be evicted when the courts accept unlawful detainer motions again.
“That’s a real conservative estimate and probably far lower than the reality of the crisis,” Blasi. He paused to punctuate how drastic an influx of that number of people being forced out of their homes would look like in a major city like Los Angeles and wonders why local lawmakers are not doing more.
“Do these people have any idea what’s coming around the corner? It will be the biggest event of any civil consequence in any modern metro city,” Blasi said.
His study references Hoovervilles, the shanty towns built during the Great Depression for the unemployed masses and named after then President Herbert Hoover.
“My working title for this study was going to be ‘Avoiding the Camps’ because that’s where we’re headed and it sounds more serious,” Blasi said.
There’s a droning sound of 200,000 lost jobs in the city of LA since March, a 20% unemployment rate through June and a rumbling of construction cranes piecing together the future home of the LA Rams outside Dolores Hernandez’ apartment in the city of Inglewood, which has a 24% unemployment rate.
This past March, her landlord called the police as she tried to host a tenants meeting in a courtyard outside her apartment.
Hernandez said she had to organize under the Lennox-Inglewood Tenants Union to bring attention to needed repairs in multiple units at the complex, like the gaping hole under her sink and mold on her walls from a burst water pipe.
“I have asthma. They want to ignore me,” said Hernandez, who worked as a housekeeper up until the pandemic. “I told the police when they came to our meeting, ‘Would you like to go into my apartment to see why we are out here?’”
When reached by phone, her landlord Bryan Russo said he called the police to make sure the tenants were not violating the terms of their lease and inviting strangers to the property.
“I explained to the tenants that you have every right to gather,” said Russo. “But you can’t do it on private property because there are other tenants who live here.”
His family business purchased the apartment less than a year ago and he said city and health inspectors have visited the complex, including Hernandez’s 1-bedroom unit. Other units at the complex listed online are modernized with updated fixtures but her unit and a few others remain outdated.
Once completed, SoFi Stadium will host NFL games and concerts just across the street and LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer plans to build an adjacent NBA stadium. Development in Inglewood is on steroids, setting the real estate market into a frenzy while Covid-19 has cast a unique situation as more people are unable to work and pay rent.
Lennox-Inglewood Tenants Union organizer Tiffany Wallace, who has lived in the neighborhood since elementary school and is a substitute teacher herself, said there’s a real fear in the community with rising rents. She received a rent increase before the pandemic and it made her realize that any improvements to the area were never meant for residents who have lived there for years.
“It’s all to attract new people. It’s hard seeing these improvements and seeing these changes and wanting to be happy and remembering the years of shootings, there’s still violence and shooting,” Wallace said during a solidarity protest outside Hernandez’s apartment.
“I know I’m going to be the first evicted. But I will be here to the end. Win or lose,” Hernandez said.
Russo said he’s willing to work with tenants who are facing difficult financial times during the pandemic, but Hernandez said he’s taken a combative tone with her.
Other landlords are less formal or forgiving, according to attorney Tyler Anderson with the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, a community organization that provides free legal services and fights displacement of low-income tenants.
Some of his clients have returned home to find chains or new locks at their front doors or loud construction meant to drive away tenants.
“It’s predominantly low-income tenants who can’t work from home during the pandemic who find themselves either unable to pay rent or putting themselves into harm with the virus,” Anderson said.
One of his clients, Laura, an undocumented Mexican woman who lives in East LA with her family, said her landlord threatened to call the police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement for her missed rent.
Laura’s full name is not being used to protect her family’s well being, but she said the situation feels like a constant harassment that will not let up. Laura thought she had an agreement with her landlord and he would wait until her husband found work, but in May the landlord said he wanted to talk. Both she and her husband lost their jobs in the hospitality industry during the pandemic.
“He said he wanted the rent and he said just go get me the money,” Laura said in an interview. “He keeps telling my husband that we’re illegals and he wouldn’t have any problem evicting us.”
Laura lives with her son and she does have some family who live in the United States, but said it would be incredibly difficult to find a place to stay if she and her family were evicted.
Popp said the state of California never passed an eviction moratorium, but left the matter up to local jurisdictions to decide how they would assist renters. The default rate, meaning the number of tenants who do not respond to eviction notices in court, is around 49%.
There’s pending legislation, like AB 1436, that would stop all evictions until next April or 90 days after the governor’s office lifts its state of emergency.
When the Judicial Council announced it would take up a vote on the eviction ban earlier this month, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, “I urge our sister branches to turn their attention to this critical work to protect people from the devastating effect of this pandemic and its recent resurgence.”
In Los Angeles County, legal aid against certain unlawful detainers is offered by the county and in LA City Hall. Councilmembers David Ryu and Mike Bonin have proposed an eviction ban and rent freeze during the pandemic, but that has not come to a vote yet. Mayor Garcetti’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We are in the middle of a health crisis,” Popp said. “Every expert says that the best way to flatten the curb is to keep people at home; orders are to shelter in place. If people are going to shelter in place they must have a place to shelter in.”
“Any landlord who files an eviction jeopardizes their tenants lives, jeopardizes the economy.”