LA Councilmember Mike Bonin’s telephone town hall offers expert advice and resources to renters impacted by COVID-19

By Danny Karel

By many estimates, social distancing and the Safer at Home order have saved tens of thousands of lives, but they’ve also kept millions away from work and unable to collect a paycheck. For both landlords and renters, this has resulted in a fraught and contentious predicament that has sent local, state, and federal legislators scrambling for solutions.

“This is a real crisis we’re facing,” said Larry Gross, Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Survival. “Prior to COVID-19, this city was already in a crisis in terms of rent and renters able to pay.”

Gross was one of four experts invited by LA District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin to speak with constituents about newly enacted renters’ rights during a telephone town hall meeting, the second in a series addressing different aspects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Other panelists included Elena Popp, an attorney and founder of the Eviction Defense Network, and Anna Ortega and Marcella DeShurley, both of the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department.

Of all his constituents, it’s renters who have been most fervently contacting Bonin since the start of the crisis.

Confusion about their rights and obligations to landlords stems from a “…maze of laws and executive orders and programs at different levels of government,” Bonin said.

Popp added that she spends time on Facebook each morning correcting “bad advice” spread between renters on social media sites like Facebook.

The town hall began with a summary of newly enacted protections, which cover two main areas: rent increases and evictions.

“For rental units subject to the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), all rent increases have been frozen as of March 30,” said Ortega.

Most units that fall under the RSO were typically built on or before October 1st, 1978 and the freeze on rent increases will extend for 360 days following the expiration of the emergency declaration — a significant jump from the original 90-day extension allotted by the city.

Bonin and Councilmember David Ryu argued for and secured this further extension during a marathon 12-hour Los Angeles City Council meeting last Wednesday.

The LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has also put a hold on almost all evictions, irrespective of whether a unit falls under the RSO.

According to Ortega, this hold will last until 90 days following the expiration of the emergency declaration. Evictions that fall under this protection include no-fault evictions, Ellis Act evictions, nuisance evictions, and evictions that result from an inability to pay rent because of lost wages related to COVID-19.

If renters are unable to pay their rent because of lost wages, they will have one year, following the expiration of the emergency declaration, to complete back payments. Landlords cannot apply late fees or charge interest to unpaid rent.

In response to widespread reports that landlords are demanding that tenants prove their inability to pay rent, the panel clarified that renters are not obligated to furnish documents proving their insolvency. However, if renters are able to do so, they are advised to take this courteous step.

Despite these protections, renters across the city have received a “slew of 3-Day Notices” from landlords, demanding that rent be paid upon threat of eviction, said Gross.

Popp jumped in, explaining that it is within a landlord’s legal rights to post notices and file lawsuits against tenants at this time.

“They can file a lawsuit, the clerk will accept that lawsuit, and the court will send you a notice,” she said. “It’s a scary notice, but it can only hurt you if you open it too quickly and get a paper cut.”

While the court is still receiving complaints, the clerk cannot issue a summons until 90 days following the expiration of the emergency declaration, she explained. However, when that time comes, landlords can move forward with lawsuits. She expects there to be a “tsunami of cases.”

While there are a number of proposals at different levels of government to secure rent and mortgage forgiveness, Bonin was clear that none of these proposals “have passed or are close to passing.”

Still, last Wednesday, City Council voted unanimously to urge the federal government to pass such relief measures, specifically the “Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act” forwarded by Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Bonin acknowledged that for many homeowners and “mom-and-pop” landlords, rent relief without mortgage relief could be financially devastating as well, and said that mortgage and property owner issues related to the pandemic would be addressed in another town hall.

However, if renters are faced with a belligerent landlord, DeShurley encouraged them to file a complaint with the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department (hcidla2.lacity.org/File-a-Complaint).

Another section of the department’s website offers an exhaustive overview of renter protections during the Covid-19 pandemic (hcidla2.lacity.org/covid-19-renter-protections), and renters can always call (866) 557-7368 to speak with a department counselor.

If renters are unsure whether their apartment falls under the RSO, they can text (855) 880-7368, a department phone number, and follow the prompts.

If renters are being threatened with a lawsuit, eviction, or 3-Day Notice, Popp encouraged them to email the Eviction Defense Network at askanattorney@edn.LA, or to email info@edn.LA for an explanation of tenant protection laws.

For sample letters that renters can provide to landlords asserting their inability to pay rent, Gross recommended contacting the Coalition for Economic Survival at contactces@earthlink.net. Their website cesinaction.org also contains a wealth of helpful information for renters.

Bonin’s office is also welcoming calls from both renters and landlords who may be struggling under the emergency declaration. His office number is (213) 444-3508, and additional information can be found on 11thdistrict.com.

“These are scary times, these are difficult times, and these are trying and uncertain times,” Bonin said, at the conclusion
of the town hall. “But we are going to get through this together, as friends, as neighbors, and as a city.”

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