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Housing & Homelessness

California’s renters and landlords are ‘just scared’ as job losses mount from coronavirus

Catherine Alvarez and her son, Jothcyel Alvarez
Catherine Alvarez and her son, Jothcyel Alvarez, worry they might be evicted from their apartment in Downey.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Catherine Alvarez is not working and on disability. Her husband was just laid off from his job as a quality control specialist. Her son’s hours recently got cut at a fast-food restaurant.

Now, Alvarez is worried how they’re going to pay rent.

“If I cover the amount of the rent, I’m not going to be able to buy food,” said Alvarez, 34, whose family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Downey. “We’re not sure what to put first before we run out of money.”

In recent weeks, the spread of the novel coronavirus has prompted public health officials to close businesses and force Californians to stay in their homes, leading to economic devastation for those who’ve lost jobs and hours at work.

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A key date is just a week away: April 1. Many renters are worrying how they’re going to pay their landlords. And many landlords are worrying how they’re going to pay their mortgages.

While federal, state and local governments have provided some protection against evictions and foreclosures during the escalating pandemic, landlords and tenants agree they need a lot more help to prevent people from losing their homes and properties. And the number of people looking for relief could be staggering. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that more than 1 million Californians have applied for unemployment benefits this month after being laid off because of the pandemic.

Landlord groups have started telling their members to stop evicting tenants, cancel any planned rent increases and waive late fees for nonpayment — all previously unthinkable proposals from apartment owners who have spent tens of millions of dollars to block state and local ballot measures to expand rent control.

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“This is an unprecedented crisis, and through no fault of their own, people are struggling,” said Jim Lapides, spokesman for the National Multifamily Housing Council, a national landlord advocacy group. “It’s up to us to do our part.”

On Sunday, the group told its members that they should halt evictions for anyone affected by the coronavirus for the next three months, hold off on rent increases and work out payment plans for tenants. The California Apartment Assn., the state’s largest landlord group, has made a similar request of its members.

Even L.A. attorney Dennis Block, who has boasted that he’s “evicted more tenants than any other human being on the planet Earth” and was filing eviction cases last week, is now telling his clients to consider temporary reductions for renters who’ve lost work, instead of putting them out.

“In most instances, evictions will not be the solution,” Block wrote on his website. “I believe the better approach is to work with your affected tenants.”

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Newsom has not banned evictions or foreclosures outright. Instead, keeping with his approach of releasing guidelines and advisories rather than legal mandates during the pandemic, he issued an executive order last week asking cities and counties to enact such bans.

Without overarching statewide action, the response has been a patchwork.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, in recent days, has issued orders temporarily blocking evictions for those affected by the coronavirus and in situations where apartment owners are planning to pull rentals off the market.

A broader plan advanced by the L.A. City Council was put on hold because meetings had been canceled through the end of the month. But the council has decided to convene an emergency meeting on Friday.

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San Francisco, San Jose and a host of smaller cities in Southern California also have approved at least some type of moratorium on evictions. But other places have not.

On Tuesday night, for example, the city of Downey was scheduled to discuss a temporary eviction ban, but it wouldn’t go into effect until next month at the earliest.

Some California lawmakers have said they want to pass a statewide eviction ban, but they haven’t introduced a bill because the Legislature is in recess until mid-April. Meanwhile, other states, including Indiana, Washington and Maryland, have moved faster than California, with their governors implementing comprehensive prohibitions against evictions and foreclosures.

This lack of a statewide response here has brought together an unlikely combination of housing activists.

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More than 140 organizations signed a letter on Friday asking Newsom to not only implement an immediate statewide ban on evictions, but also suspend and forgive mortgage and rent payments among other aggressive actions. The groups included Yes In My Backyard, or YIMBY, and an affiliate of the L.A.-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Under normal circumstances, those two groups and many others that signed the letter hate one another. Their unity reveals a shared fear for renters as the coronavirus outbreak worsens the state’s affordable housing problems, said Francisco Dueñas, executive director of Housing Now, an advocacy group that spearheaded the letter.

“I think folks were hopeful when the governor made his announcement last week that it would be something that would really provide relief for tenants at this moment of uncertainty,” Dueñas said. “And he just really punted.”

Newsom didn’t commit to a statewide eviction ban at a press conference on Wednesday, but signaled that he was frustrated that few cities had acted.

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“We are very concerned about what’s happening — or not happening — at the local level,” Newsom said.

The federal government’s response so far has also left gaps. Last week, President Trump announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development was “providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April.”

But that was not the case. Instead, the Trump administration has offered foreclosure relief for single-family homeowners and apartment owners with mortgages backed by the federal government. For landlords, that benefit will be available only if they agree not to evict their tenants.

Shmuel Raigorodsky, who owns three small apartment complexes and two single-family rentals in Los Angeles, is working with his renters.

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He said he has already heard from tenants in the restaurant industry who have lost their jobs and aren’t going to be able to make rent in April. In response, he has called his banks to see if they’ll be able to offer some relief on his mortgages, but he hasn’t gotten anything firm yet.

Raigorodsky, 35, plans to allow his tenants to pay him later, but he’s worried. “It’s a little juggling act,” he said. “To see how I can be the most helpful while at the same time making sure all the bills are paid.”

Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said the strongest response to the pandemic should be from the federal government because it has the ability to protect renters and homeowners beyond the budgets of state and local government, and the leverage to force banks to provide support too.

Instead, the Trump administration has asked state and local public housing agencies across the country to implement an eviction moratorium.

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“We’re really pushing for a uniform national policy to ensure that people don’t lose their homes at a time of emergency,” Yentel said. “At the same time, there has to be tens of billions of dollars in financial assistance to ensure there’s not a cliff that low-income renters fall off once the emergency ends.”

Congress and the Trump administration have discussed providing renter and homeowner assistance as part of a coronavirus stimulus package. Negotiators announced a deal on a plan early Wednesday, but no details were immediately available on what housing aid might be included.

As for Alvarez, she’s spoken with her property manager, who told her the landlord will give her family more time to pay the rent. But she’s concerned that even if Downey ultimately passes a moratorium on evictions, she won’t be able to make up what she owes without more help.

“I’m just scared,” Alvarez said.


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