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Editorial: L.A. is throwing renters life preservers. They need a whole lot more to survive the coronavirus downturn

Rent protests at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights
Members of the Los Angeles Tenants Union and their supporters rally at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights in April to demand rent forgiveness for the month.
(Los Angeles Times)

Homelessness in the city of Los Angeles increased again this year, this time by 14%. More men, women and families were living on the streets, in cars or in shelters, even as a record number of homeless people were moved into housing. The grim state of the city is that we can’t house people as fast as they fall into homelessness.

Yet we know how to prevent the city’s homelessness crisis from getting even worse: By helping renters stay in their homes.

This is especially vital now, when so many Angelenos are out of work and struggling due to the COVID-19-triggered recession. Too many families were living on the edge financially before the coronavirus. Half of all renter households in Los Angeles spent more than 30% of their income on housing. One in three households spent at least 50% of its income on rent. Those renters had little money left each month to save for a rainy day, much less for a pandemic.

California has put a temporary stop to evictions so tenants who can’t pay the rent won’t lose their home during the pandemic. But renters will eventually have to come up with the payments they missed. A study released by UCLA law professor Gary Blasi predicts an avalanche of evictions that could force tens of thousands of families into homelessness if city and county leaders don’t take strong, immediate actions to help them.

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That’s why the City Council’s vote Tuesday to create a $100-million rental assistance fund is an important first step toward building a stronger tenant safety net so the pandemic doesn’t worsen L.A.’s already staggering homeless crisis.

Under the program, the city will use federal coronavirus relief dollars to provide subsidies of $1,000 per month for two months to help lower-income tenants pay the rent. The program is open only to tenants whose annual income before the pandemic was less than 80% of the area median income, which translates to about $90,100 for a family of four. That group comprises more than half a million renter households in L.A., according to the city’s housing department.

To qualify, tenants will also have to demonstrate that they lost income due to COVID-19. The subsidy will be paid directly to an approved applicant’s landlord. In exchange for accepting the rental assistance, the landlord will be forbidden to raise the rent for 12 months or begin eviction proceedings for tenants in the program for six months after the coronavirus emergency ends.

The program could help 50,000 households — and also their landlords. Some 87% of L.A.’s apartment buildings consist of 10 or fewer units, and many of those owners are mom-and-pop operators who risk losing their buildings if their tenants can’t pay them.

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L.A.’s rental assistance program is the largest adopted by any city, and more than three times as large as the one the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday. But those efforts are still likely to be woefully insufficient to meet the overwhelming need for serious and sustained housing assistance.

State lawmakers must get moving on a proposed renter relief program. And Congress has to get off the sidelines; far more federal aid will be needed to make sure the economic aftershocks of COVID-19 don’t devastate renters, landlords and the housing market.


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