LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Dionicia Cipres owes nearly $6,000 in rent on her one-bedroom Koreatown apartment, where she lives with her husband.
Come Feb. 1, when Los Angeles' rent protections due to the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire, the clock will begin ticking for Cipres to pay back all of it.
Cipres, who is 53 and works part-time at supermarkets, is worried that without job stability, she won't be able to pay her rent of $993 per month. Her husband, who has lingering health impacts from COVID-19, works in construction -- but it is also unstable.
Every two weeks, Cipres said she could make as little as $300 or as much as $500.
``Sometimes, we have enough money to pay the rent,'' Cipres said to City News Service in Spanish through an interpreter. ``Sometimes, we don't. That's the challenge that we have.'' Cipres said that she already staved off one eviction attempt by her landlord, with the help of the pandemic-era protections. She is concerned that another attempt will follow if the protections expire.
``I'm very worried that I could be unhoused and living on the streets,'' Cipres said.
Cipres could be a victim of what tenant groups fear is an incoming wave of evictions once Los Angeles' long-standing protections expire. The volume of eviction filings has begun to resemble pre-pandemic levels, according to Kyle Nelson, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA and a member of the LA Renters' Right to Counsel Coalition.
Nelson, who has compiled data on evictions in Los Angeles County during the pandemic through court filings, said that the number of filings could increase to levels not seen since the Great Recession -- which contributed to more than 72,000 eviction filings in 2008. Through September, there were 23,867 eviction filings in the county this year, already more than 2020 and 2021 combined.
The Keep LA Housed coalition estimates that 650,000 tenants will lose just-cause eviction protections on Feb. 1, allowing landlords to proceed with evictions without reason. According to the National Equity Atlas, there are 226,000 households in Los Angeles County who are behind on rent. Of over 83,000 Los Angeles renters behind on payments surveyed by the U.S. Census in December for its ``Household Pulse Survey,'' approximately a third indicated that they would likely leave their current housing situation due to eviction in the next two months. Nearly 30% were three months behind on rental payments. Half of respondents relied on government assistance for food and borrowed from friends or family to meet spending needs within the last week.
In December, the city council voted to end the state of local emergency due to COVID-19 in February, which also set an end date for renter protections that had been in place since March 2020. The council has not yet approved any additional form of protection for tenants. ``When these protections go away, tenants are going to be thrown into a state of uncertainty,'' said Jonathan Jager, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Foundation.
Economic assistance and eviction protections helped reduce the forecasted growth of homelessness during the pandemic by 43% in Los Angeles County, according to a report by the Economic Roundtable. When the council returns from recess next week, it will have less than a month to make permanent any potential protections. Jager had hoped that the council would implement permanent tenant protections before it set an end date for the temporary protections.
``By committing to this February first end date and then going on recess, the City Council has given itself three weeks in January to try to accomplish that,'' Jager said. Tenants who have missed payments since March 2020 will have to meet two re-payment deadlines. Under state law, they have until Aug. 1, 2023, to pay back missed rent between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. Under the city's moratorium, tenants will have until Feb. 1, 2024, to repay rent accumulated from Oct. 1, 2021 to Feb. 1, 2023.
``As each kind of layer of these temporary tenant protections has been peeled off, we've seen a corresponding increase in the number of evictions that are being filed,'' Nelson said. Tenant groups fear that while tenants may have up to a year to pay back rent due, landlords may still file for evictions, banking on tenants not responding in the requisite five days. Without a response in time, a judge could offer a default judgment allowing the eviction to move forward.
``If you're already on day five or day six, you mostly lost your case,'' said Edna Monroy, director of organizing with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. Without legal representation, which tenants might not be able to afford or find, they could give up and lose their property.
``Just because we have these protections doesn't mean that landlords don't want their money,'' said Pamela Agustin-Anguiano, coalition director with Eastside Leads. COVID-19 continues to impact families who were already housing insecure prior to the pandemic, according to advocates. Those are the people who will have to resume paying rent without much recourse, said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for Tenants Together.
``COVID has just really hit them even more now,'' Singh said. ``And that's not over just because our politicians have decided to say, `COVID is over, we're moving on.'''
Groups representing landlords, though, push back on the notion that additional tenant protections are necessary. They argue that the situation has shifted significantly from when the pandemic first started and believe that fears of an eviction wave are overblown. Fred Sutton, senior vice president of local public affairs for the California Apartment Association of Los Angeles, claimed that the length of the pandemic-era tenant protections will make housing harder to find and more expensive because landlords have not been able to raise rent to keep up with the rise in inflation.
That could result in steeper rent increases when landlords can resume doing so in a year on rent-controlled apartments, which account for three-quarters of the units in Los Angeles, according to Sutton.
``Housing providers have not been able to rely on a steady fair process on this issue, and that all builds into someone's abilities to take risks -- and financial calculations in how they operate their business,'' Sutton said.
Rich Kissel is a small landlord who owns 20 units across three properties in the Lawndale and mid-city area. Kissel, 71, retired last year and said the rent he collects is intended to supplement his retirement income. His one-bedroom units are at around $1,000 in rent a month. Kissel said he never expected to become rich from his properties, but he has three tenants who have not paid rent since the pandemic began, which has forced him into the red.
He applied successfully to have the state cover the rent through the Housing is Key program, but with the program expired, Kissel hasn't received rent payment from those units since October 2021. He said he's owed around $40,000. Kissel hears the arguments that ``housing is a human right'' and agrees that living under a roof is essential for a person's dignity and health. But he said that housing costs money, and that the pandemic-era protections were overreaching, blanket policies that have gone too far.
``The housing provider isn't the enemy here,'' Kissel said. ``The housing provider is the hero, because only we know how much it really takes --how much effort, how much money has to go into this. This is a long-term commitment. This isn't a short term, get-rich quick scheme.''
WHAT COMES NEXT
On a cold December morning before a council meeting, five council members gathered with advocates with the Keep LA Housed coalition in front of City Hall and pledged to fight for permanent tenant protections.
``It's cold outside, but we're out here fighting,'' Councilwoman Nithya Raman said. The council in October had expressed interest in exploring universal just-cause rules, which would require specific reasons for landlords to evict tenants in all units, not just those under rent control. It also looked at providing relocation assistance for all evictions deemed no-fault evictions. Other protections the coalition sought included: a right to counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings, a cap on rent increase for rent-stabilized units and relocation assistance for displacement due to large rent increases. None of those measures, though, would be in place once the protections lift in February.
``In this moment, when we are all struggling so much, when people are still holding onto so much debt from the pandemic, I know that inside this building there is not the appetite to continue with these much-needed tenant protections,'' said Raman, who is the incoming chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee. Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, also on the committee, called the moment a ``critical juncture,'' noting that the newly-elected council members include renters and activists who support making protections permanent.
``It's true that the support hasn't been there for that in the past,'' Harris-Dawson said. ``But thanks to you all, you sent some new people inside the building.''
Eunisses Hernandez, one of the new council members who ran on protecting tenants, said: ``If we didn't sell out during the campaign, we're not going to sell out now.''
The five council members -- which also included Hugo-Soto Martinez and Heather Hutt -- were joined by Councilwoman Katy Young Yaroslavsky in voting for eliminating the Feb. 1 end date for the COVID-19 emergency declaration. That would have extended the temporary tenant protections indefinitely. The vote was 6-5 in favor, falling two votes short of passing. Embattled Councilman Kevin de León did not vote, and the Sixth District seat was vacant due to Nury Martinez's resignation.
Jager, the staff attorney at Legal Aid Foundation, said the coalition has been calling on de León to resign over his participation in a leaked racist conversation, but that based on previous statements, both de León and Martinez would have been supportive of the delay. Martinez resigned in October for taking part in the conversation, but de León remains on the council.
``I think it's less about the vote itself and more of the need for reform at City Hall -- the fact that something can fail when it passes 6-5,'' Jager said Because the council will have to again vote on extending the moratorium this month, there will be at least one more opportunity to scrap the end date.
``We'll be back in session in January and we're going to try again,'' Soto-Martinez said in a video posted on Twitter after the meeting. Another possibility could come via the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which in a December meeting aligned the end of its eviction protections with the city -- but also sought a report back on possible six-month extension.
If that extension is adopted, it would also apply to city residents, even if the City Council doesn't pass any additional protections. At present, the state of renter protections in Los Angeles remains in flux. Soto-Martinez, who said his district consists of 80% renters, said the pandemic has affected those who are housing insecure the hardest.
``If you ask any of those people if they feel that life is back to normal, they're going to say it's not,'' Soto-Martinez said. ``Why should we put this level of anxiety on the people who literally kept our city running?''